Partisanship vs perspective: in defence of critical distance

Posted by on Mar 1, 2012 in Uncategorized | 10 Comments
Partisanship vs perspective: in defence of critical distance
Image available under Creative Commons © spjwebster

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” So begins Terry Eagleton’s 2006 review of Dawkins’ much-celebrated book The God Delusion. Let’s be charitable and overlook the irony (to which Eagleton seems oblivious) of such sniffy dismissiveness coming from a literary critic who has openly confessed his own ignorance of both science and theology and yet who is reviewing a scientist’s book on theology. Let’s dwell instead on the substance of his point: namely, that you need to be sufficiently qualified, knowledgeable and expert in a particular field in order to be justified in making any pronouncements on it. If you’re not, he implies, then your views aren’t worth hearing. But is that true? And – more pertinently – what relevance does this have for football?

I was reminded of Eagleton’s argument by the recent debate over Lee Clark’s sacking by Huddersfield. When Dean Hoyle gave the Terriers’ manager of just over three years the boot following a 1-0 home reverse to fellow League One promotion-chasers Sheffield Utd, football journalists and general football fans – myself included – were united in their astonishment. How on earth could someone who had just presided over a record 43-match unbeaten run be dismissed with his side sat in fourth place, just four points off an automatic promotion spot? Surely Huddersfield supporters would be up in arms.

But the curious thing is that they weren’t – far from it. In an article for this very site, seasoned Terriers observer John Dobson argued cogently that Clark’s sacking was actually necessary, highlighting everything from tactical ineptitude and a bad habit of drawing games from winning positions to an incomprehensible transfer market strategy that seemed to ignore manifest defensive deficiencies.

And, what’s more, John’s wasn’t a lone voice in the wilderness – the comments box soon filled with Huddersfield fans echoing their agreement. All this came as something of a chastening revelation to me and, I suspect, a lot of other readers. Was it the case that we really had got it all wrong about Clark? For those of us non-fans who generally follow Huddersfield’s fortunes through the mass media, had the BBC and the broadsheets been our equivalent of the Book of British Birds? Even if the commenters didn’t say it outright, we, like Dawkins, stood accused of not knowing what we were talking about. They, by contrast, knew best.

It’s true, of course, that someone who goes to a team’s games, who witnesses things at first hand, who devours all of the news and gossip, who has an intimate connection or bond with the club, will know more about them. It’s also true that they’re likely to be able to put that knowledge to good effect by offering insights, subtle or otherwise, that a non-fan couldn’t.

And yet…

And yet there’s a part of me that bristles at the notion that the views of the disinterested (note: disinterested, not uninterested) observer are therefore somehow irrelevant or redundant. Surely there can be some value in being slightly detached, in looking on and commenting from a distance. For is it not also true that partisanship can colour views and cloud judgements? Is it not also true that the narrow tribal allegiances that football fosters can distort perceptions of reality? This can be a simple matter of being unable to see the wood for the trees, but it can also be a case of being unwilling to do so. When it comes to their own clubs, football fans have an incredible capacity for self-denial and self-delusion.

Perhaps my point is best illustrated by looking at three other examples of managers losing their jobs, the way (some) fans of those clubs reacted to the news and what subsequently transpired.

1. Alan Curbishley (Charlton). It seems incredible to think that only eight years ago Charlton ended the season seventh in the Premier League. The following two campaigns they posted respectable 11th- and 13th-place finishes, but by the end of the latter season the sizeable Addicks blogging fraternity seemed to be unanimous in grumbling about how the club was starting to stagnate and thereby failing (or refusing) to accept that they were punching significantly above their weight. Curbishley’s subsequent departure in the summer of 2006, after 15 years in charge, was widely welcomed. The season that followed was an unmitigated disaster and Charlton were relegated, tumbling down another division two years later, and only now, under Chris Powell, are they on an upward curve once more.

2. Martin O’Neill (Aston Villa). When the Northern Irishman walked out on Villa on the eve of the 2010-11 season, I was amazed to hear a friend of a claret-and-blue persuasion declaring himself to be pleased – and even more amazed to learn that he wasn’t alone among the Villa Park faithful. The feeling, it seemed, was much the same as with Curbishley at Charlton: the club wasn’t making any obvious progression. That much was true – Villa weren’t going anywhere, but that was a hugely significant achievement in itself, O’Neill having steered a relatively underfunded team to sixth place for three successive seasons. O’Neill’s replacement Gerard Houllier was a backwards (mis)step, and the popularity of the current managerial incumbent, ex-Birmingham boss Alex McLeish, serves as a classic illustration of why you should be careful what you wish for.

3. Mick McCarthy (Wolves). Sacking someone who had just presided over a humiliating 5-1 home defeat by derby rivals West Brom to compound a poor run of results, and who looked completely at a loss how to remedy the situation, seemed to many of those who’d been quick to get on the Yorkshireman’s back to be a positive move. There were thirteen games left to play and, courtesy of a premature exit from the FA Cup, the luxury of a fortnight in which to find and install the right replacement. But manager after manager spurned Wolves’ advances (Brian McDermott, Walter Smith, the aforementioned Alan Curbishley), leaving the board frantically scrabbling around for someone – anyone – prepared to do the job, as long as it wasn’t Steve Bruce. To the fans’ bemusement and anger, the search ended in farce; the club were practically forced to promote Terry Connor in the absence of any other candidates, leaving Jez Moxey to claim more than a little implausibly that Connor wasn’t a managerial novice and that he was actually the man they’d earmarked all along.

I should make clear that by the above I’m not arguing Huddersfield fans glad to see the back of Lee Clark are naive, self-deluded or just downright wrong. What I am suggesting, however, is that history has shown that those who feel most knowledgeable and most qualified to comment, who might be inclined to scoff at the ignorance of others, are sometimes left wiping egg from their faces.

I should also make clear that I’m not claiming to be somehow immune to the selective blindness that can be brought on by partisan feeling, the temporary myopia that can ironically arise from close observation. On the contrary, I’m only too aware that I and my fellow Newcastle fans have on occasion condemned ourselves to the same painful “We-told-you-so” fate. It is to my eternal shame that I responded to the sacking of Sir Bobby Robson – the man who, lest we forget, reinvigorated and inspired a previously relegation-threatened side to attain Champions League football – not with a howl of bitter despair but with a shrug of mildly disappointed resignation. Equally, we were all a-quiver in 2009 at the news of Alan Shearer’s appointment as caretaker, even though the rest of the footballing world was shaking its head and pointing out that the announcement came on April Fools’ Day. Relegation duly ensued and Shearer’s reputation with his hometown club was tarnished.

Of course, it’s easy (and natural) to feel aggrieved at being lectured on your own team by non-supporters, and tempting to retreat defensively behind a facile “We know best” or “Keep your noses out of our business”. One only has to look to the Luis Suarez affair to see how a club and a set of fans can close ranks and refuse to accept any criticism, throwing the baby of reasoned argument out with the bathwater of cheap parochial sniping. Sometimes the truth hurts, sometimes it’s not pretty – but it’s often best (and sometimes only) delivered by those looking in from the outside. It was an acknowledgement of this fact that led my fellow blogger Paul and I to instigate an occasional series of posts entitled View from the Away End, in which non-Newcastle fans are invited to offer their opinions unedited and unchallenged. We’re not above self-flagellation, but neither are we above allowing others to do the flagellating.

So what, then, does this article amount to? Hopefully not merely a misguided manifesto giving the wilfully ignorant carte blanche to spout off. I’d rather see it as a stout defence of this very site’s founding ethos. Despite the increase over recent months in fascinating pieces commissioned from in-the-know fans (to take just one example, this superb post on Bradford City by Michael Wood), there still remains something to be said for a relatively small bunch of football enthusiasts writing about a whole host of clubs and players of whom they have no insider knowledge and to whom they have no partisan connection. To paraphrase Voltaire’s famous pronouncement on freedom of speech, you may not agree with what we say, but you should at least respect our right to say it.

Ben is a long-suffering Newcastle Utd supporter (is there any other kind?) who co-founded and co-wrote Black & White & Read All Over, a blog that, over the course of a decade, chronicled the ups, downs, chaos and calamity of the club he has the misfortune to follow. Since the blog hung up its boots in May 2014 (note: not as a mark of respect for Shola Ameobi leaving St James’ Park), he has contented himself with sporadic, splenetic Twitter outbursts and shamefully rare contributions to The Two Unfortunates. He is currently haunted by visions of Joe Kinnear returning to the club for a third spell and pondering whether he’ll live to see another victory over the Mackems, but at least has a cardboard coathanger with Robert Lee’s head on it for consolation.


  1. Lanterne Rouge
    March 1, 2012

    A very well argued piece Ben. Perhaps my most embarrassing moment as co-editor of this site was the piece I penned, ‘Brendan Rodgers: a chapter to forget’ after the Northern Irishman was sacked by Reading — and if it were true that he had presided over a lamentable run of home form, that sequence had started well before his arrival at the Madejski Stadium.

    He also had to cope with the loss of Kevin Doyle and Stephen Hunt and a side still smarting from losing in a play-off semi-final to Burnley. In retrospect, the careful style of play he attempted to introduce and his blooding of Gylfi Sigurðsson showed a hint of what was to come and his graciousness in victory as Swansea defeated defeated Reading to reach the Premier League was a credit to the man.

    The next set of fans beginning to show disquiet are Stoke City’s — watch this space.

  2. normangunston
    March 1, 2012

    Really enjoyed this piece, but Villa “relatively underfunded”? The huge losses racked up lately at Villa is indicative of the spending under O’Neill’s regime.

    In the wake of his effect at Sunderland this is probably unfashionable to say – but I tend to agree that O’Neill did lose his way at Villa. He tried to spend his way into the top 4, whereas (I would argue) O’Neill’s true genius is gelling good players into a great team. He did it at Leicester, Celtic, and now looks like he’s doing it with Steve Bruce’s spare parts team at Sunderland.

  3. Nick
    March 1, 2012

    “O’Neill having steered a relatively underfunded team to sixth place for three successive seasons.”

    Relative to who – Man City? Nobody who fritters circa £9m on Curtis Davies can claim to be underfunded.

    O’Neill was backed heavily by the Villa board, then when it spiralled out of control (the wage bill tripled 2007-2010) and the spending was deemed unsustainable (which it clearly was, and the club is suffering from the aftermath right now)… he threw his toys out of the pram and quit.

    Whether your opinion of him overall is positive or negative (and for the majority of Villa fans it is the former), he did not lack for funds.

    A viewpoint un-clouded by partisanship can be valuable – absolutely. But at the same time, a viewpoint that possesses a dubious grasp of the available facts is no better. Distant critique should still be informed.

  4. Tom
    March 1, 2012

    A very readable piece, however out is also a wonderful example of why fans should stocking to psychoanalysise their own team instead of stocking to lazy mass journalism based assumptions.

  5. Ben
    March 1, 2012

    I’ve set myself up for the ‘Stick to what you know’/’You don’t know what you’re talking about’ comments here, haven’t I? But thanks for reading and responding all the same.

    On reflection, ‘relatively underfunded’ was perhaps not the best choice of phrase when confronted with the fact Villa frittered £9m on Curtis Davies, though I’ll stress the emphasis is on the word ‘relatively’ – in comparison with the sides above which they were looking to displace, Villa had far less financial clout.

    I guess a key word – and one that I didn’t use but should have done – is ‘realism’. There’s little more galling than opposition fans claiming that you and your fellow supporters have unrealistic expectations – it’s an accusation levelled against us Newcastle fans on a daily basis. While this isn’t always or even generally the case, it is nevertheless true on occasion. Charlton fans were unrealistic in their belief that the club could punch even further above its weight; Villa fans were unrealistic about being able to break into the top four with the squad they had; Wolves fans (and the board) were unrealistic in their conviction that the manager’s job would be an enticing prospect – and, I suspect, that they could find someone who could get more out of a hard-working but limited squad than Mick McCarthy; we were unrealistic when we binned Sir Bobby Robson thinking we could do better (only to end up with Graeme Souness, delighted to offered an escape route from Blackburn where he was close to the sack) and pinned our hopes on Alan Shearer to save our sinking Premier League ship. Sometimes that healthy dose of realism is needed, and often it only comes from outside, from those with a more detached perspective on things.

  6. John Mc
    March 1, 2012

    A really good, and in my view, pertinent piece, Ben.

    As a League One follower, I, too, was amazed at the reaction to Clark’s departure but understood the tenor of criticism. I sometimes felt that his modest success was an accumulation of the club’s wealth and that the extra 5% they needed to breast the tape – the managerial dividend if you will – was perhaps lacking. Their appointment of Grayson, a man with form in getting out of the league backed that up somewhat – it’ll be interesting to see how he fares.

    I think Megson’s departure from Hillsbrough is another good case study. Although there’s obviously the ‘Mandaric as Loon’ factor I’m still surprised at the negative reaction from Owls fans as they should be tanking L1. The timing is crazy, the reasons perhaps less so.

    At Carlisle there remains a vocal cabal of folk who absolutely abhor Greg Abbott. Their reasons for doing so being more and more spurious by the month as the club skirts around the play-offs with a small squad in a league with 5 outright heavyweights occupying the top 5. Criticism dwells now on historic failings, personality tics (‘he always says honest and determined, worr’an idiot!’) and the odd aberration such as the public mauling at Brentford last Monday. That last one was a cause of embarrassment and consternation but the ‘I told you so’ brigade were out in force afterwards with arguments akin to turning one’s nose up at an al fresco feast at the Michelin starred ‘El Bulli’ by virtue of the fact that a fly had consequentially landed on the plate. The 800 person drop in crowds was, in my view, a thoroughly dispiriting show of pig-headedness and as good an example of this type of nonsense as there surely is in the Football League. The people who bemoaned our functionality now just bemoan porousness and if we win handsomely? Well, Abbott didn’t shout enough on the touchline. Unfortunately these dickheads are a fact of life – to try and reason with them is to sign an interminable suicide pact. I’ve given up trying – it only ever ends up with my being dubbed an arrogant, big-headed ‘Abbott Loving’ twat. Or other equally wit-devoid sobriquet.

  7. Michael Wood
    March 1, 2012

    First: Thanks, much appreciated.

    Second: I think there is a second axis to the idea that people can be too close to the club they watch to make a judgement and that probably comes in their ability to see their club with a sense of context. To be able to see the world around their club and the position within their club and assess the performance of the club in that context.

    An example of this would be AVB at Chelsea. Chelsea under AVB are not as good as they have been in recent years but Chelsea are no longer the club who will pay more money to player than anyone else (Manchester City, Paris SG, Zenit will pay more). To judge AVB as achieving less that his predecessors is only possible if one ignores those points.

    At my own club Bradford City we had (Scot third place side Motherwell’s boss) Stuart McCall for two and a half years and there was a divide between supporters (a bitter one) over if he was a good manager or not. One strand of the debate advanced the argument that he was a good manager doing a good job at a very badly run club. McCall’s performance in Scotland and Bradford City’s inability to not do worse without him (and they are doing worse, and have fought relegation ever since he left) suggest that it was this strand of debate which held the truth and it was this strand which set the club in the context of its peers most. Tellingly it was a strand subscribed to by both those very into the club and those with only a passing interest.

    One can be as close or as far as one wants from the club as long as one can see the Woods around the Tree (so to speak) but once one loses sight of that context then one’s judgements are impaired. My view on Huddersfield Town is that they have looked at Clark’s position without looking at the context of their team in the bigger (Sheffield) clubs in their division and that the best any manager could do with Town is put them in a position where they are competing for promotion with those teams. Interestingly Wednesday have followed Town’s lead in sacking and one wonders if in the land of the blind the one eyed Danny Wilson may be king.

    So, for me, it is the ability to see your club in its current context which governs the ability to give an impartial view and it is not always easy to see the club like that but it is always helpful.

    Third: Great article, great website.

  8. putajumperon
    March 1, 2012

    Whilst naturally agreeing with your views I can’t let this, or any, football topic pass without throwing my own two-penneth in to confuse the situation…
    Last night Messrs Greene and Lawrenson dirtied the airwaves once more with their usual brand of inane drivel. This time the topic was the future ability of Stuart Pearce to manage the national side. Thirty minutes before kick off their mind was made up; he is/was totally unsuitable. Really if they’re to be believed promotion at work should never be based on potential but rather on experience (which of course you cannot get without some form of promotion). How could one do the job without managing “a decent premiership side” first? Lawro continued, before piping up to tell us that it was easy to be successful at U21 level given the quality available. Naturally their management credentials are impeccable from the gantry, and MoTD couch.
    Now I agree that “football enthusiasts writing about a whole host of clubs and players of whom they have no insider knowledge and to whom they have no partisan connection” is a valid pursuit, and would hope that I might be included in such a scheme. What I am less enamoured with is the thought that Alan and Mark might be put in that camp with us…

    That aside, it’s a truly excellent piece Ben putting my own vain attempts to literary genius firmly (and I mean, correctly) in their place.

  9. Lanterne Rouge
    March 5, 2012

    a great comments section – especially nice to see El Bulli shoehorned in and yes,as Michael says, in the land of the blind, Danny Wilson truly is the King’!

  10. Ben
    March 10, 2012

    Michael: Yes, absolutely – ‘context’ is another word I should have used, along with ‘realism’! John essentially makes the same point about Carlisle – a play-off place is seen as a disappointment despite the clubs occupying the top five places being relative heavyweights.

    putajumperon: Thanks for your kind comments on the article – though not for lumping us in with Alan Green…


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