Football Fandom's Blank Generation
In Blank Generation, Richard Hell’s notorious hymn to disaffected youth, the auteur claims himself a ‘cartoon long forsaken by the public eye’ — a totem for a column of society with nothing to say and no voice with which to say it. It gets to the very core of why ‘punk’ (the movement and the statements, not the often desperate excuse for music) formed and proved pertinent anthems for a section of that social grouping for whom God Save the Queen was less a call to arms and more the snot nosed outpourings of a confused loon from North London.
I’ve pondered recently whether modern football fans are the sport’s own ‘blank generation’, a terrace bound brand to be eulogised but seldom heeded — the self same cartoons which head this very site, unseen, inoften contemplated and only heard when they are parroting a handful of received notions. We live in an era where the game has reached greater heights than many can ever have contemplated but where even the lowliest of players seem dismally out of reach; a world where blandishments are dressed up as punditry and where dissent is greeted with aspersions on personal sanity.
I’m not one to pine for the comeback of East End casuals in bovver boots and Fred Perry, part frozen pies and the Football Express. Unlike many of my peers I forego the rose-tinted specs when viewing football fans, but compared to the accepted image of supporters as one-track, narrow minded buffoons pouring forth drab clichà©, even I feel the synapses twinge and an urge to get nawty.
Where the football obsessed media do stress the notion of fandom in their narrative this is either tinged with sepia nostalgia or the obsession with celebrity — so ‘Our ‘Arry’ is billed ‘the fans’ choice’ as the new England manager by virtue of his Englishness and his innately popular cheeky-chappy ways, despite no obvious attempt at any cultural or social analysis of any sort or any analysis of other well qualified alternatives — cos well, y’know ‘it’s gotta be ‘Arry ain’t it?’
Perhaps the apotheoses of all this are the pronouncements of that human guff cloud Piers Morgan on the fate and future of the great Arsà¨ne Wenger. Here is a man without any wisdom or import spouting second hand, nauseatingly populist and ill-informed views on a subject about which he knows nothing – a point well made in the editorial to the March issue of When Saturday Comes.
It’s all very well tossing buns in his direction but can we not for one second stop and consider that we’re complicit in allowing this arsehole to happen? How on Earth was this frightful oaf granted the role of the UK’s Footballing Ambassador to the US through a role as a pundit (you read that right folks) on Fox Sports?
Personally I find that the most dispiriting trope of this whole problem is that modern communications put the opportunity to change this status quo at our very fingertips. Where Hell and his contemporaries got by on their wits and their spirit we hand the opportunities for fans to share their views in public almost every night of the week, and at the foot of every screed on the sport. And almost every single one is spurned.
For every blogger striving to say something new and being harangued for taking a stand, there are 300 demented Liverpool fans sitting in the queue on ‘606’ to ape Doctor Fox by reminding Jason Roberts that ‘Suarez in’t a racist and that’s a scientific fact.’
At my own club Carlisle, one particular phrase is used to cover a lack of original thought about certain players (usually ones who are, rightly or wrongly, unpopular on the terraces for one reason or another). I’m sure you’ll have heard it too — ‘he only gets in because he is the manager’s pal/favourite/secret latino lover.’ It’s the confused supporter’s Sicilian defence.
Behind this labelling usually lies a latent admission that there is some merit in a certain player’s selection but that a particular view on ‘Player X’ is so drummed into the person’s head that it becomes insurmountable — the perceived truth masking the actuality.
At Carlisle this season our left back is Matt Robson, a converted winger. Over the last 12 months he has felt his way into the role and after some shaky showings in Autumn now offers even more than when sited further forward in the 2009/10 season. Yet, if you asked a sample of our fans to name our weak link, 99 of 100 would cite him. As for a reason? Well, ‘he is not a full back. He is a winger.’
Try and take that apart and we’re back to the start again — favourites. The same Matt Robson benched for two thirds of last year and forced to play an unfamiliar role to get back in the team? Well, he’s the manager’s favourite.
We’ve had a similar quibble at centre back where the Slovakian Ä½ubomàr Michalàk has duked out with fan’s favourite Danny Livesey for one spot. Livesey is the archetypal British defender; the heart of Terry Butcher and the finesse of an Ikea bookcase — the type of salt of the earth lad who all football followers (myself included) love. Michalàk is more temperamental; at times seemingly channelling the mute Rocky vanquishing Commie, Ivan Drago.
Discourse around this choice tends to dwell on how Livesey scored a penalty to get ‘Carlisle to Stoke Cityyyyyyyy’ (in the 2005 Conference playoffs) and how he can head the ball a long way whilst Michalàk lumbers around before picking up his club highest wages every week after checking in to give the gaffer a back rub. It never mentions that the latter’s form prompted a recall to the Slovakian national squad for World Cup duty in Autumn.
Michalàk’s troubling performances since the turn of the year (which hit a peak with an ignominious 56th minute substitution for Livesey in Monday’s drubbing at Brentford) show that fans are right to raise the point but the tone of argument has tended away from performances and into more disturbing, and facile areas.
I must stress the point, though – this isn’t a Carlisle problem, but a national one – I’m not out to upset my fellow fans merely to illustrate something I feel to be true.
The two examples from my own experience hit at the heart of the potential reasons for the vanilla discourse on football — where discussion is a dying (or indeed dead) art and opinion is to be sniffed at. We are fed what to think by jerks like Piers Morgan and Alan Green.
As ‘proper English football supporters’ we should value certain traits over others (stepovers? Pish!). Our players should play in two banks of four, never try any funny stuff and absolutely never change position (NB: Hierro and Desailly? Exceptions to prove, okay?). As for Johnny Foreigner? Well, he can be tolerated but we’d prefer to back our brave English lads, thanks (Irish, US (war innit) and South Americans will be tolerated — absolutely no Jocks, Frogs or Russkis).
Of course I exaggerate for effect but the effects of a narrow-minded whitewash, tinged with jingoism and xenophobia (see treatment of A. Arshavin in recent weeks for example) are evident if you scratch the surface even the shallowest of amounts.
It may appear that I am seeking to pin the blame for the fans’ ‘Blank Generation’ on the media. Whilst they must shoulder some of the blame, perhaps a note of introspection should strike us all too. Next time you stroke the keys to offer a glib soundbite or to admonish a fellow fan for sporting a different view, perhaps pause to consider whether you are helping dig our own grave. In that I can be as guilty as us all.
Now more than ever, football, its fans and media need a strong movement to help strive for change — of discourse, of wisdom and of perception. It’s thus all the more depressing that so many trailblazers of the blogging community have recently called it a day. Maybe they were the Richard Hells and Johnny Rottens us fans needed to make us think again?
Where Hell’s ‘blank generation’ could resolutely ‘take it or leave it’ I’d venture that we mustn’t and shouldn’t — this is football, these are our clubs — it’s far too important for that. When that blank generation had been and gone, there came a New Wave. Let’s Rip it Up and Start Again shall we?