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Three games into the Premier League season, the distinctive sound of burning pitchforks is in the air. Without a win from the six matches that they have played between them, both Andre Villa Boas and Brendan Rodgers are already being cast into a familiar mould – that of the hapless managerial failure. Both are managers whose appointments carried an element of risk about them. Villa Boas excelled at Porto in a way that few other managers have in recent years in coaching this team to the Europa League and the Portuguese championship, but his stock fell with his turbulent spell at Stamford Bridge, while Rodgers arrival at Liverpool came off the back of success at Swansea City but a nagging concern that his name might not be of the pedigree that supporters of that particular club might have expected.
After their opening matches of the season, though, both managers are already falling towards a familiar looking black hole of ridicule and contempt, but to what extent is this a reflection of the football culture that we inhabit rather than their respective managerial abilities. There was a time when media coverage of the game was considerably more scarce than it is now, and it doesn’t seem implausible to suggest that this saturation coverage has an effect upon the attitude of some supporters. Every Premier League match is An Event, to be previewed extensively and, after The Event, picked over like a turkey carcass on Boxing Day. Statistical analysis and tactical study of the game – both of which have now reached fetishistic levels – give some people what is presumably considered to be an empirical view of the game, but the obvious truth is that statistics can be selectively used to prove just about pre-determined opinion, whilst over-analysing statistics removes the element of chaos theory ignores much of the chaos theory which, we might suggest, gives football much of its appeal in the first place.
All of this leads us to an obvious conclusion: that judging, or seeking to judge, a new manager on the basis of a handful of games is nonsense. This isn’t to say that Andre Villa Boas or Brendan Rodgers will necessarily be successful at their respective clubs. It feels, however, that the climate in which we live, much as it doesn’t have the time for any degree of nuance – you must form an opinion and you must form it now – neither does it have the time to say, “Well, it’s too early to tell.” A quick scout around of the club forums of both Spurs and Liverpool reveals only a degree of division between supporters on the subject, but it always seems likely that those who complain the loudest will be the ones to be heard the most and that any more considered opinions will be drowned out and much of this will be egged on by those in the mainstream media who can generate revenue by pushing and prodding those for whom a jerk of the knee-cap is a somewhere close to being second nature.
None of this means, however, that supporters should merely be docile, passive consumers who merely accept what they are served up without complaint. This is an unusual season in the Scottish Premier League. Without Rangers, Celtic are expected to win the division by a country mile this season, but the team has had a choppy start to the season, dropping points in two of its opening four matches and leaving the league table looking considerably more open than we might have expected, even at this early stage of the season. At the weekend, the team was held at home by St Johnstone, a team that they were expected to beat with room to spare, and the reaction of a section of the crowd was predictably unhappy at the teams performance. Since then, there has been considerable debate amongst the clubs support over the question of whether to express disappointment and frustration at a poor performance by their team.
Two conflicting views on last weekends Celtic performance can be seen on The Celtic Blog. The first, anonymously written, states that “There was positives and [the team] certainly didn’t deserve to be booed”, and concludes by saying “That was the only thing that deserved to be booed yesterday. But then I’m not a total idiot”, whilst the second, written by John Reid (who, as an aside, writes an excellent round-up of Scottish football for The Daisy Cutter every week), argues that “fans should be frustrated and annoyed when sloppiness denies Celtic what would be a well-earned victory.” Who’s right on this thorny matter? Well… they both are. Sorry if that sounds like a cop out, but they are. On the one hand, there is a case for saying that booing the team doesn’t really help anyone, and that football as a pastime is something that involves both winning and losing and, perhaps, accepting both with the best of grace, where possible.”Get behind the team”, it is often said, and the extent to which home form outstrips away form at all levels of the game would seem to indicate that there is something in this.
The counter-argument to this would be to argue that football supporters are not merely massive consumers of the game. We invest an enormous amount emotionally (and, increasingly, financially), and that frustration is natural and understandable. Clubs, managers and players make a great deal of enthusing about supporters when things are going well. They should, perhaps, take it on the nose when things aren’t going so well. In addition to this, we could contend that booing players at the end of a poor performance is a key ingredient of the the pantomime nature of football. We all know that there is a line in the sand between, say, a little jeering and sending death threats or leaping over the barrier to thump a referee and it is only an infinitesimally small number amongst us that even seriously consider such ideas. That those that do grab so much media attention should not be allowed to deflect from that.
There is, however, a world of difference between the situation at Celtic Park last weekend and the rapidly mounting pressure on the likes of Andre Villa Boas and Brendan Rodgers. A few catcalls at the end of a disappointing ninety minutes from people that have paid for the dubious privilege of seeing their team perform ninety minutes of headless-chickenry is one thing. Heaping pressure on a new manager after two hundred and seventy minutes of the new season is something else together. The manager is part of the institution of a club, and even if it might seem as if hiring and firing a manager might be a smooth process, it can be a costly, disruptive and divisive process with no guarantees of a successful outcome. If both Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool were to both sack their managers, who would come in to replace them? And would this, considering all of the variables that make up finishing as high as possible in the unforgiving world of the Premier League, be enough to dramatically, radically change the fortunes of the clubs in a way that simply cannot happen if the men currently in charge – both of whom have a pedigree that was sufficient to earn them the positions that they hold now during the summer – were allowed the one commodity that there seems to be less and less of in modern football, time?
There are many aspects of modern football should be angry about – the moving of kick-off times for television companies, ticket prices and so on, you know the list – and if the anger that seems to accompany the game these days was channeled into issues like these, then perhaps something might, just might, be done about them. To not be able to draw a distinction between a little light booing at the end of a match and a hysterical reaction to a disappointing (but far from unsalvageable) start to the football season, however, is potentially damaging all football supporters, especially in an era during which there are many legitimate reasons for dissent. Supporters of Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Celtic have a right to boo and jeer when their team fails to win, but they should bear in mind – as all supporters probably should – that, in the overall scheme of football in terms of big clubs with big histories, the odds remain stacked in their favour. There will always be a place for dissent in football if it sticks to the games tradition of pantomime or is aimed at the right targets. It can occasionally feel as if that line in the sand is getting more and more faded as time goes on, though.
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