It may have taken half an hour of the hors d’oeuvre clash between Porto and Napoli, but the largely partisan home crowd at Arsenal’s showpiece season opening ‘Emirates Cup’ have finally found a reason to become animated. Often noted for their quiet approach to both triumph and despair, the patrons of Ashburton Grove have laid to one side their sang froid and sputtered into a chorus of boos.
The object of their derision, as is often the case, was so recently the object of their affection – Gonzalo Higuain, the striker spirited from Madrid to Southern Italy from under the noses of the London side’s over-anxious negotiating team. For his part, Higuain takes the abuse with good grace, stopping to smile and offer a thumbs up to the Clock End. It seems that only the interlopers amongst us realise the almost jaw-dropping irony of the act – the Arsenal faithful aren’t booing Higuain himself, but the fact that he plays for a club other than their own; an outcome entirely within the gift of club executives who chose instead to pursue actual villain Luis Suárez.
It’s widely held that the fan paying through the turnstiles is well within their right to praise, abuse or exhort whoever he or she wishes, and in the case of Arsenal and Higuain, I’m glad that they did. But booing as a culture seems to have become rife in the modern game and one begins to wonder where it might stop, and how healthy it actually is for those subjected to it.
Who can fail to recall, for instance, the retina shredding images of the Geordie faithful airing their discontent toward manager Sam Allardyce a mere handful of games into his tenure? That act led to his swift dismissal and the eventual flat spin of Newcastle United in an era broaching the return of not one, but two, messiahs and a brief interlude of mid 70s tragi-comic light entertainment in the press room. The Tyneside spiral prompted by that malodorous chorus was only halted by the steadying hands of Chris Hughton and Kevin Nolan, by which point Newcastle were in the Championship.
Recent seasons have seen a couple of worrying trends in the booing field. Before we draw up to last year’s nadir it seems apt to touch on the pattern for booing the inflictors of injury. This has been happening prevalently for a number of seasons now, but seemed to reach a watershed moment through the proximity of the dual injuries to Arsenal’s Eduardo da Silva and Aaron Ramsey at the hands of Birmingham’s Martin Taylor and Stoke’s Ryan Shawcross respectively.
The injury to Eduardo famously derailed Arsenal’s season and, it could be argued, flicked the switch of intolerance in the North London faithful. It may be the tenderness of those wounds that leads them to hound Shawcross so vociferously – for what was he doing when tackling Ramsay but playing football? Admittedly, he was playing it poorly, and questionably outside the spirit of the game, but he was punished and contrite. That he is still booed at the Emirates pushes the bounds of common sense at the very least; there is no question that he set out to deliberately injure the Arsenal player, so why treat him as pariah all these seasons later?
Of course, this seems small beer in comparison to Chelsea fans’ treatment of both Anton and Rio Ferdinand last season. For those of you who spent it in a hermitage, a brief summary of the scenario – QPR defender Anton was the subject of alleged racist abuse from Chelsea captain John Terry; allegations seemingly supported (at least in part) by video evidence. Both he and his high profile brother were publicly outspoken about the incident; attempting to use it as a means to advance the question of racism in football.
For their trouble they were greeted with derision at the hands of the Terry worshipping Chelsea faithful. There isn’t a single point in this sorry farrago where any actor behaves with panache but the partisan, depth plumbing antics of the sheep-like West London fans towards not only the victim of racist abuse, but also to his brother, marked a stark departure from the quasi-pantomime act of jeering an opposition superstar or mocking one of the game’s self-styled supervillains.
Which prompts the question, when is it okay to boo? The answer to that is subjective, of course. Even the embattled Chelsea fans may have been able to justify their actions towards Ferdinand in some roundabout fashion. But looking at it objectively, perhaps most fans would agree that it might just be ‘okay’ to boo a returning player who has agitated away from the club, especially where, as in the example of TTU favourite Paul Ince, they deliberately enflamed the conflict – in Ince’s instance by wearing a Man United shirt ahead of his transfer from West Ham.
Even here the point is debatable – Ince still suffers indignation through every visit to the Boleyn Ground, and there’s a worrying trend to booing any and every returning player, regardless of circumstance. You were released to cut wages? Booooooo! You left several years ago for a large fee, your career’s stagnated and you’ve fallen down the leagues? Boooooooooooo!
One wishes that fans would occasionally apply a self-filter before entering into this chorus of dismay.
Similarly, it’s beginning to seem churlish for fans to boo opponents’ on-field antics. It’d be all very well were they taking issue with the outright villainy of, say, a Ron Harris or Norman Hunter or even the showpiece camp of a Vinnie Jones or Marco Materazzi. Instead, every enthusiastic fall or claimed throw-in is met with that same refrain. In a way it almost devalues proper reactions to actual cheating.
At Carlisle, for instance, Millwall’s Nicky Bailey will be forever held in contempt for actions whilst playing at Southend in 2007-8. Facing up to promotion to the Championship the Cumbrians had begun to falter. However, a home victory against the Shrimpers would likely have seen them home. Enter Bailey and a dramatic performance to make Olivier blush – in full view of the home Paddock he fell to ground under pressure from David Raven, clutched his face and gestured with an elbow. The totally innocent Raven departed, Bailey was resurrected, aimed a chuckle to the home fans and the Cumbrians duly folded. Play-off defeat to Leeds was the kicker to the story; and Bailey is still blamed in some parts as the root cause of the collapse.
His continued cat calling, through subsequent spells at Charlton and Middlesbrough, highlights a deepness of wound that potentially warrants censure. But even then, such a legitimate gripe seems cheapened by its fastening to the same clarion call as that meted out for accidental hand ball, over-earnest challenges and slicing the ball out for a throw.
Which point brings us neatly to the most common cause for terrace disdain – purely and simply being dreadful. It’s in this area that the capitalist rhetoric of ‘paying to boo’ most comes into its own, as the terrace boor justifies their right to admonish all and sundry as a paying customer, without sparing a thought for the impact on his neighbours, or even the players subject to his volley of invective.
Beyond the previously mentioned example of Sam Allardyce, can anyone really point to significant example of fan behaviour having a significant direct, and positive, impact on either managerial positions or onfield? True, many fans will kid themselves that a toppling manager keeled under pressure of their collective wit, but this is usually a mere environmental factor amongst a spiral of poor form and failing ideas – booing as by product, not as trigger point.
In many cases it’s arguable that booing, however well minded the intentions, will only serve to worsen performance. In an interview I conducted with the former Stoke City and Portsmouth striker Vincent Péricard a little over a year ago he spoke of his treatment at the hands of Swindon Town fans leading to sleepless nights, depressive episodes and, ultimately, his decision to begin work in the field of player welfare.
Whilst his is an isolated example, and his own personality seemingly conducive to criticism, it surely indicates an endemic issue. Footballers are a thin-skinned species – one full back of great renown, a man with almost 100 international caps to his name, refused to speak to a friend of mine for over a year after being awarded a paltry 5/10 (average, remember) in a local paper after a tawdry display – and we may do well to remember that next time we reach for our inner vuvuzela.
So, when is it okay to boo? Surely not because of your club’s own fumblings, not for accidents of circumstance, for personal choices, not because ‘it’s him’, nor in the interests of one’s own club.
Whilst the mock outraged spew and haw about rebranding, prices and treatment, all the while hypocritically standing in line to file in for more punishment, perhaps they should turn and look at themselves. Football’s a game. For entertainment not enmity, for obsession not opprobrium. It seems such a shame we’ve forgotten that amidst our bitter dash to the bottom.