Tuesday, 14 October 2008

All Within Earshot

I read with a smidgen of amusement and a large heap of incredulity a number of reports in the national press at the weekend about a minority of England fans who had the audacity to boo Ashley Cole following his blooper that led to Kazakhstan's goal. How could they! What a heinous crime! Hang, draw and quarter the lot of 'em, that's what I say! Burn them at the stake!!

But seriously...what on earth is the problem? Why has this one single incident spurned major headlines in some newspapers? Why has it sparked a huge debate on message boards and resulted in uncontrollable rants that have been broadcast across our radio's airwaves? What is wrong with a few fans showing their displeasure with a player's performance? My initial reaction is the press were probably short of news. Short of news that 'sells' to be precise. Short of bad news. Rather than rejoice at the 5-1 victory, let's find something to complain about. Rather than have a considered piece of reporting on Capello and whether he got his tactics right, let's pick something trivial and, quite frankly, not newsworthy and see if we can sell more papers.

Many of you already know where I stand on this. Fans have a right to express their views. The fans - lets' be clear about this, the paying customers who cough up hard earned cash to be entertained - are surely entitled to pass comment. Aren't they? It happens in all spheres of entertainment. Film, theatre, literature, sport. We watch, we listen, we read, we observe, we digest and we respond. There are different ways of responding and a myriad of options for expressing feeling and the majority of us do so in a totally acceptable manner. However, some cross the line into unacceptable behaviour. Admittedly, when it comes to crossing that line, football fans have a certain reputation. Violence is a huge step over that line. Foul mouthed language and unrelenting verbal abuse is also uncalled for. But the odd bit of booing? Is that unacceptable? Is it really such a bad thing? Really?

Fans reacting to the moment is a part of football; it is woven in to the rich history of the game and it continues to occur, weekly, daily, at all levels from the Premiership down to the lower reaches of non League. In my view it totally enriches the game.

But I am slowly learning how different the crowd experience is in the lower leagues, and I'm not simply talking about numbers. One of the many things I am growing to love about the games at the smaller grounds is how much more obvious crowd reactions are. A comment shouted from the crowd is actually from that chap there, stood just in front of you. But it is more than that, the amusing "ref, you're an idiot" cry of disbelief comes from a frustrated fan at the opposite end of the ground and is quite clearly that young lady there, with the green and white scarf and the pink handbag. In the sparse crowd, she is easy to spot. In the intimate surroundings, you can hear her quite clearly. The reactions of the crowd are plain for all to see. The shouts, the boos, the jeers and the cheers are there, right there in your face and there is no hiding. It's like sharing a joke with 500 people. Everyone is party to it. Even the players join in. Sometimes, even the referee.

On Saturday I went to the FA Cup tie between Hampton & Richmond Borough and Whyteleafe played at The Beveree Stadium on Beaver Lane, Hampton. At grounds such as these one can almost touch the players. We were stood right on the railings that surrounded the playing area and any comments from the crowd were certainly within earshot of the players and the match officials. As if to prove this point the referee, just before half time, felt the need to stop the game and speak to one of the stewards. The said steward was then dispatched, with a number of his colleagues, into a small group of Whyteleafe fans stood behind the goal. This happened some distance from where we were standing, but it transpired that someone in the crowd had made a comment to either the referee or a player and the stewards had been sent to intervene. The point is that not only did the referee hear something, it was also easy to point out the perpetrator. Virtually impossible in the cauldron atmosphere of a Premiership crowd, but at the Beveree with a modest attendance, no problem. Had that particular fan crossed the line that defines what is acceptable and what is not?

I also read at the weekend about a fan who verbally abused a player in the FA Cup game between Whitley Bay and Hyde United. A Hyde United player, who tamely shot wide of goal, received a torrent of (reportedly) unacceptable abuse from one of his own fans. Unlike the Ashley Cole incident, this didn't make the back pages. The referee asked the abused player if he wanted the fan to be ejected from the ground. Once again, no hiding place for the accused. Not only did the referee step in to take action from comments hurled from the crowd, but in this case he passed the ultimate decision to the attacked player. Is that right?

But who decides what is acceptable? What is downright rude and obnoxious for one person may be highly amusing to the next. There is, I fear, no answer and no common ground for agreement. We are all very different, and therein lies the problem. Whilst some see booing one's own player as acceptable, others do not. What's more, are referees now expected to police crowd behaviour? Is it still part of a steward's role? Or should we, the fans, police ourselves. Do we really know what is acceptable or not at a football game? If we were totally honest, I'm sure we would say we don't. For the simple reason that we could never agree.

However, it is probably fair to say that non League fans have to be a little more circumspect in the way they react, because if they do cross that line, they are more likely to be found out as the above examples seem to testify. But it is not only the fans that need to tread more carefully; the logic also applies to the players and club officials, including the managers. It cuts both ways. At the FA Vase game at Hassocks last month there were a number of complaints from the fans about the language used by the Chertsey Town manager whilst he was giving his team a dressing down before extra-time. Close to the pitch, many fans could hear quite clearly the choice words, and some took offence, most notably parents with young children. Maybe there is a lesson there as well. Rather than pointing a collective finger at us, the paying fans, maybe the football community as a whole needs to wise up to what is and what isn't acceptable behaviour in our stadiums and grounds up and down the country.

There is one thing I am certain about. For me the crowd culture - the way in which the fans interact with the occasion - plays a huge part in the entertainment that football theatre provides. So much so that the crowd, and how they react, becomes part of that entertainment. The big match atmosphere, the singing, the display of club colours, the noisy reaction to events on the pitch. Or the more singular reactions; the lone voice shouting out a witty comment that makes the crowd laugh; the loon stood next to you who repeatedly shouts out the same thing during the whole game and sounds like a stuck record; or the big softy that cries into his beer when you lose at home. Or the odd bit of booing. Take this out of the game, and we will be one step closer to watching the game in completely sterile environments, devoid of the wonderful noise, banter and humour that is the ultimate expression of our reaction to a simple game of football.

If it ever should come to that, it would be a very sad day indeed.


Chris Layton said...

The Hampton goalkeeper actually claimed that something had been thrown at him (something rather more solid than an insult). This claim actually mystified everyone present both Hampton and Whyteleafe fans. We suspect that something had actually fallen from the tree behind the goal - it was a windy autumn day. Apparently a missile had been thrown at Hampton earlier FA Cup round match at Dartford. Perhaps the keeper was hyper-sensitive?

Chris Layton
Whyteleafe FC supporter (and General Secretary)

Ollers said...

Hi Chris,

Thanks for your comment, that clarifies what happened. I was some way from the "incident" but I would be as surprised as you would be if someone threw something at the keeper. Coincidently, I was also at the Dartford v Hampton game and don't recall the goalkeeper being hit by anything. Certainly a sensitive chap!