Monday, 25 November 2013

When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed

23 November 2013 - Bristol City 0 Sheffield United 1

I understand – really, I do. I was there. It wasn't a great deal of fun. Sheffield United are a bad side, we couldn't break them down, we ran out of ideas and we gave them the goal that beat us. I've had better Saturdays at Ashton Gate, although I couldn't name too many of them in recent history.

But still. Aren't we better than this? Can't we do something better, as ten thousand souls who (after all) want the damn team to win, than purse our lips and come out with that all-pervasive, awful


I'm trying not to be unreasonable or holier-than-thou. I don't think that it's wrong or inappropriate in every context; at the end of our defeat to Leicester in January, for instance, it felt like the only reasonable response. But like so much in football these days, the more people do it and hear it, the more they want to do it at other times, when it's not just inappropriate but harmful.

I didn't see any lack of application on Saturday. I saw a lack of technique, a lack of ability, and most of all a lack of composure. But the team worked hard, were perhaps unlucky not to claim a clean sheet, were almost certainly unlucky to be denied a late equaliser, and were absolutely not second-best on the balance of play. While I'm not arguing that being no worse than a team like this Sheffield United is particularly laudable, it's not a dreadful disgrace either.

Nevertheless, particularly at 0-1, I heard a lot of booing. I heard players booed for miscontrolling the ball and conceding possession. This makes little sense; effectively, players are abused for not being any better than they are. We're in League One, we have a team of players who aren't highly valued at levels above us. Are our players likely to have the immaculate, consistent touch of Ajax's 1973 midfield? Or are they going to be a mixture of the inconsistent (Scott Wagstaff, Nicky Shorey) and those who make up what they inherently lack in technique in other areas (Marvin Elliott, Aden Flint)? Yelling at players for failing to be Andres Iniesta isn't even self-defeating; it's just weird. It's not as though we're an ex-Premier League side fallen on hard times and struggling to come to terms with our new surroundings. When wasn't watching City like this?

And then there's the booing for not doing what the crowd want you to. I got very angry when Derrick Williams, presented with few options in terms of midfield movement and decent passes, moved the ball back to the goalkeeper and was barracked and booed for doing so. I got angry to the point of shouting “can we not fucking boo 21-year-olds?” at nobody in particular.

You could make the case that the crowd wasn't booing Williams for his perceived failure to “get it FORWARD!”, but the entire team for not providing him with options. That'd be much more reasonable, but would suffer from the microscopic flaw of being bollocks. The boos didn't come while Williams considered his options and the other 10 players stood still and stared at him. They came when he made a reasonable decision and executed it competently. Even if the boos had been aimed at the whole team (though they definitely weren't) it's a blunt instrument, you can't differentiate. There's no room for special pleading on the grounds of lost nuance in the arena of the boo.

This kind of thing is bad news for all sorts of reasons. Many of us will have sat in uncomfortable seats behind the goal in unfamiliar stadiums listening to a home crowd booing their players and thought, “good”. Thought “we're winning”. When the crowd turn on their players you know you've got them. And if you feel that as a fan, it must be all the clearer when you're one of those being booed. It must sap your spirit, just as it raises the spirits of the man in the different coloured shirt who's trying to beat you. 0-1 down at home on a cold day in November, with 10 minutes to go – not the moment to experience a shift in confidence away from you and toward your opponent. But I'm sure the crowd made that happen.

It also can't encourage the players to do the right thing. O'Driscoll talks about getting them to think about their decisions, do what's right not what's easy, and he's absolutely correct to do so. But the more pressure one feels to make a decision, the more one can hurry it, and the more one is tempted either to do the easy thing or to pass the buck entirely. To play the five-yard pass you know you can make, not the twelve-yard one you may not be able to, even though the first won't advance play and the second might. Or to give someone else the ball and make it their problem, even if they're double marked or in a worse position. (The perfect storm here comes when a player is moaned and groaned at for being unable to control, under pressure, a ball fired at them by a team-mate who is refusing to be the one who tries to solve the problem.) And in games like this weekend's, when we're suffering from a lack of composure, extra pressure from the stands will exacerbate, rather than solve, one of our most pressing issues.

What frustrates me is how obvious all of this sounds to me, sitting here writing it. Of course booing during a match, booing players who are learning, working hard and giving all their ability will allow them, is a destructive thing. It's self-evident. But that just brings me round to the question “so why do people do it”? As I said at the beginning, I understand how frustrating that game was. I hated those last 20 minutes. But surely we're not animals bound to stimulus-response behaviour? Is it impossible for the football fan to experience an emotion and not act immediately, without their higher brain functions getting involved? What's it for?

I don't have an answer. I suppose that, as is so often when the question “why act in that stupid, counter-productive way?” is posed, alcohol may have something to do with it. I wonder whether we regress a bit at football, whether the adrenalin and the shouting and the men, the omnipresent men, push us into some atavistic, combative mode where rational thought would be a disadvantage. But I've been bored at enough football games to suspect that this isn't, in fact, the case.

Ultimately it's a selfish act. It's saying “it's more important that you hear what I personally think than that our chances of winning are improved”. It's irrational, it's lunatic, and it's frustratingly stupid. Perhaps it comes from a sense of disenfranchisement, of not being listened to in everyday life, of taking the only possible opportunity to express yourself to people whose actions matter to you.

Large groups of people acting collectively against their best interests appears to happen on only two occasions – football matches, and whenever Conservatives win elections. It's the disenfranchisement that does it on the latter occasion as well. So maybe there is something in it.

But it still makes me want to dash my brains out in disbelief when it happens. I'd quite like City to win whenever they play. For that to happen, the environment needs to be as favourable as possible. And for that to happen they need positive reinforcement not negativity. Like Alan Partridge, they need two positives.

We've got another home game tomorrow. So please, if we give the ball away trying to do the right thing, if our young players make callow errors, if we go a goal or two down against a good side, and if you really can't bring yourself to offer encouragement when it's most needed, then take the advice you'd give fans of the other team.

Sit down. And shut up.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Cognitive dissonance and the football fan

2 November 2013 - Bristol City 1 Oldham Athletic 1

Are you a football hipster?

The odds have to be pretty good here.  You’re voluntarily using your spare time to read a tiny blog about the experience of being a fan of a third-tier Football League side.  It’s quite niche.  It’s cultish.  It’s a long way from arguing about whether Van Persie ought to celebrate.  Just being here means you must be a bit of a hipster.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, or you’re not sure whether you are or not, you can (sort of) scientifically find out here, by using this excellent Guardian quiz.  (I am, by the way, A Bit of a Hipster, but I think I’d have done better if it weren’t for the fact that I already own that Dortmund shirt).   It’s a fun quiz – witty, clever and interesting, I liked it a lot. 

But one of the things I found most interesting about it was question three, the one about what you watch on TV.  The first two possible answers are “Manchester United v Milan on ITV1” and “Athletic Bilbao v Shakhtar Donetsk on Sky Sports Red Button”.  It’s clear what the implication is – yer true connoisseur of off-the-beaten-track football is far keener to watch the encounter between the men from San Mamés and the team of Dario Srna, Eduardo and Bernard than the game between boring old United and the dwindling power that is AC Milan.

What I found most noteworthy, though, is the identity of the TV Channels in particular.  The ITV of butt of a thousand jokes Adrian “Toby jug of warm piss” Chiles, the deranged Keane and the appalling Townsend.  And the Sky Sports of the great Gary Neville, the affable Stelling and the “legend” that is Chris Kamara.

Or the free-to-air ITV and millionaire behemoth Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Sports, depending on how you look at it.

You see, I think there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance happening here.  Because one often finds that the people most knowledgeable about obscure football, most in love with the game beyond the endless United/Chelsea/Barcelona/Real Madrid axis, are the ones who are most vocally Against Modern Football.  While accepting that all-seater stadia have done a lot to make the game more accessible, they bemoan the demise of the relatively egalitarian football world of the past, where the game belonged to the local community, Anderlecht could reach the European Cup final, and the world’s greatest players were unknown geniuses appearing out of the mist once every four years for a World Cup.  They are often, in short, Against Modern Football.

As far as I can see, to be Against Modern Football means to be against the extreme haves-and-have-nots-based market economy that football has become.  Nobody denies that some clubs have always been wealthier and more successful than others.  It didn’t take the establishment of the Champions League to ensure that Arsenal’s roll of honour dwarfs Shrewsbury’s.  But it’s undeniable that the last 20 years or so have seen the vastly expanded sums of money in football roll disproportionately towards the “establishment” (or at least the version of it which happened to exist in the early ‘90s and was then set in aspic) and away from the smaller clubs.  The TV deals, the sponsorships – you know the stuff.  But it starts with the TV deals.  It starts, effectively, with Sky Sports.

Sky Sports created modern football. Indeed, they didn’t just create it – they sustain it.  And with every subscription taken out they become more powerful.  Yet there’s rarely any sense that they themselves are a bad thing. Cause and effect aren’t always linked, sure, but it’s odd for cause to be celebrated whilst effect is bemoaned.  Listen to the Guardian’s podcast – you’ll hear forty minutes of complaints about the state of things followed by an enthusiastic list of games available that weekend on Sky or BT.

Ah, BT – the channel that hired Baker and Kelly, Richardson and Honigstein, dressed itself brilliantly in the clothes of the savvy, intelligent fan and then, just as it was established, threw more money than ever at the big clubs of UEFA, whilst taking away from the fan who can’t afford to pay for more TV at home, or whose parents can ‘t be persuaded, the guaranteed Tuesday night Champions League treat.  You have to admire their business acumen, even if you can’t admire the result.  The attempt to stop Sky having a monopoly has just increased the cost to the fan who does want to watch everything, and therefore the cash tipping into the pockets of the biggest clubs.  Who saw that coming, eh?

You win this round, capitalism.

This stuff matters not just because intellectual dishonesty is a bad thing.  I’m not really mad at the football hipsters.  Shock reveal: I am one.  And I watch the Champions League like everyone else.  I’ll go to the pub if Dortmund v Real isn’t on free-to-air, but I’ll watch it.

It matters because I support Bristol City.  And there’s a good chance you support Bristol City.  If you don’t, I’d like to think you support one of the 85 or so English league sides who missed out on the golden tickets, although statistically you probably don’t, you probably do support one of the lucky few.

There are enough closed shops in British life.  Very little social mobility.  The rich get richer, the poor get shat on.  You die in the class you were born.  When John sodding Major makes the point that this is a problem, you know it’s a hell of a problem.

It’s depressing seeing football, still ultimately two villages kicking a pig’s bladder at one another, come to this. And while it’s perhaps inevitable (why should football be unlike basically any other aspect of modern times) that doesn’t mean just taking it.

Ultimately, while I’d love to sit at home and watch that Bilbao – Shakhtar game (it does sound very good) I’m not going to consciously prop up the edifice that sustains those at the top by feeding on those at the bottom.  That’s no exaggeration – read about the way clubs get remunerated for losing their best kids nowadays.

And while I’m not naïve enough to think that anything I do or say, ever, can particularly change the status quo, I do wonder whether we have enough football hipsters, and enough Bristol City fans, to at least knock a few bits of masonry off kilter.  Otherwise, ultimately, we accept that we’re sacrificing the spirit of the game purely because we want to watch more of it, in comfort and convenience.

Hipsters.  Bristol City fans.  Shall we start with not subscribing to BT Sport and to Sky?

And then shall we work from there?