Partisanship vs perspective: in defence of critical distance
“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 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.