In the latest of our series on abuse within football, Gavin Saxton is tremendously puzzled by the curious phenomenon of fans turning on their own players.

I couldn’t swear that there aren’t any others, but offhand I can think of just two occasions when I’ve booed anyone at a football match. On both occasions it was because there were people on the pitch who shouldn’t have been there, and I don’t mean in the sense that Shaun Wright-Phillips shouldn’t be on the pitch at an England international, I mean in a stricter sense of really having no business being there at all. One of them was when there was a bit of a pitch invasion, with the game still going on. The other was at the Premier League’s first ever Monday night match, when a troupe of dancing girls calling themselves the Sky Strikers trotted out onto the hallowed Maine Road turf before the match. Perhaps I’m a bit less proud of that last one, in retrospect, it wasn’t their fault as individuals of course. But it does demonstrate that when something happens during a football match which we don’t like, we have few means – and only blunt ones – for making our feelings known. And it’s probably for that reason that the culture of booing is all too prevalent.

Booing the opposition, I suppose I can understand, though I don’t for a moment like it. Sometimes it’s a sort-of good-natured pantomime booing, though you should be wary of assuming that it’s going to be taken in the spirit in which it’s intended. Booing match officials is much much worse. Rob has covered the Scottish refereeing strike elsewhere and I don’t mean to go through it again, but anyone who read my earlier articles on the subject will be unsurprised to know that they have my full backing. That’s not to say I don’t understand the frustration with them at times, of course. In our match last week there was a cock-up which allowed our opponents to bring two substitutes onto the pitch while taking only one off, thus defending our subsequent corner with an extra man. It would be fair to say that I was amongst those who were, rather vocally, endeavouring to bring this situation to the referee’s attention. That can of course be done without resorting to abuse.

But the thing I really don’t get is booing your own team. Really, what is it ever meant to achieve? If players aren’t playing very well, do we think they don’t know that? If they aren’t trying hard enough – which perhaps does occasionally happen although football fans are generally awful at judging it – is it going to help? If you don’t like a decision a manager makes, is it going to make him change it? If it’s just to let off steam and make us feel better, can we really not find a less destructive way of doing so?

How would it work in our own jobs? I’ve certainly had bad days in my working life, when I made bad decisions or messed something up. I might even concede that I’ve had days when, if push really came to shove, I could probably have worked a bit harder and put some more effort in. This I’m sure applies to all of us. Is there anyone who thinks that they’d be more likely to perform better, or put more effort in, or feel better about the job and more inclined to do so if they had people booing them and castigating them every time things didn’t go as they hoped? I know of some fans who draw a distinction here and are careful to support their team during the match and will only boo at the end of it. It’s not quite as bad, maybe, but the distinction still escapes me for the most part: so maybe you don’t have someone in the office booing you all day, maybe you just get booed and called a wanker for a few minutes every day when you’re on your way home at five o’ clock. Does that make a difference? Is that going to motivate you? If anyone thinks yes then I’m genuinely interested to hear it. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that in most circumstances, most of the time, it’s going to be counterproductive. Including in football.

And my subjective impression is that, at least in some aspects, it’s got worse in recent years.

Now, I appreciate of course that it’s always gone on. I’m not under any illusions that football fans in the past were better-behaved or less hostile than they are now (though the forms of it may vary). And of course I know that for as long as we’ve had football, indeed for as long as we’ve had organised societies, we’ve had commentators complaining that “things” were worse than they used to be and I’m usually wary about trying to identify any long-term trends. But it’s equally lazy to assume no such trends exist – the nature of football support has changed in recent years (quite obviously so, in some respects, and sometimes for the better) and we can look at what effects that has had.

I do think crowds are increasingly impatient. Why this should be, I don’t know. Is it a reflection of trends in broader society? Is it because football crowds have become more middle class and come to the game with higher expectations? Does the internet, by providing a more immediate focus for discontent, bring it to a head more quickly? Who knows. It’s certainly manifested itself in the increasingly short lifespan of managers, that’s a trend on which you can analyse the stats, and I think it’s happening within individual matches too.

And it’s not just the impatience – it’s the search for someone to blame. This time I am going to submit that it’s part of a wider trend of ‘blame culture’ beyond football. If things aren’t going right, it must be somebody’s fault. And we’re very quick to latch on to somebody to ascribe to it. Allied to this, there’s an increasing tendency for people to be more conscious of their rights than of their responsibilities. Which ties in without about the only justification I’ve ever heard anyone offer for booing their own team – “I’ve paid my money and I’ve got every right to ….”.

Again, I’ve just never understood the logic here. Yes you do have the right. Fill your boots, if you really must. But as an argument for actually doing something, the simple fact of having the right to do so leaves much to be desired. We live in a passably free country and I have the right to do all kinds of weird and wonderful things that would mark me out as a rank idiot, but why would I want to? So normalised is the behaviour that you hear players and managers sometimes defending the supporters who have just booed / hurled abuse at them for the previous ninety minutes, on precisely the same grounds – they’ve paid their money and they’ve got every right … . Clubs need their supporters, of course, and it’s understandable that they might not want to risk picking fights or taking them to task, or at least that they should be a bit tactful in how they do so if they feel their behaviour during a match is unhelpful.

Still, at least there’s one manager we can rely on never to make the mistake of being tactful. Step forward Roy Keane, who was characteristically blunt last week (actually he was quite restrained, as Roy Keanes go) in criticising Ipswich supporters for being too negative in general and for booing a substitution in particular. Apparently they were booing the decision to take one player off, but that’s not obvious to the seventeen year-old lad who’s just coming on in his place. (And were they really cheering the opposition’s passes? In what kind of alternate reality is that meant to help a young side having any chance of getting back into the game?)

Again, as with referees I can of course understand the frustration sometimes. We do spend a lot of money, as well as investing a lot of emotional energy, in following our teams, and we’ve all seen them turn in some pretty spineless or insipid performances from time to time. Sometimes it appears that players really do need a foot up the backside, and as fans we have few other means – at least during the course of the ninety minutes – of getting our feelings across. I can, maybe, conceive of circumstances in which I might boo my team, but those circumstances would be very rare – and more to the point we’re not very often in a position, then and there, to be able to judge them. I’ve seen players who I knew to be half-fit playing through it to help the manager out in an injury crisis, only to be booed for apparently not putting enough effort in when they failed to chase down lost causes.

Perhaps I’m being a bit unfair. Maybe there are times when you can justify it more than others. But it’s my general experience that those fans most likely to boo their team, the ones quickest to look for someone to blame for things going wrong, are those least able to exercise considered judgement as to when there might actually be any cause to do so. For that alone I’d much prefer it to be taken as a general rule by any and every fan that you just don’t do it.

Unfortunately it seems to be considered an accepted and largely acceptable part of football fans behaviour. It is indeed a culture of abuse, and it’s one we indulge and tolerate far too readily.

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