/ Sport

Words by GREG GORDON. 02/20/2018


In his article, ‘The problem with fans” Greg Gordon, professional football scout and writer, explains why the ‘articulate idiots’ that the barrage of TV coverage has given birth to, is a form “industrial illness’ for a professional analyst of the game.

In his book ‘The Gaffer: The Trials and Tribulations of a Football Manager’ the ex-QPR, Crystal Palace and Leeds United boss Neil Warnock tells a story that will be very familiar to anyone who watches football.

Warnock says: “At Sheffield United, when I’d not been there more than a few months, I listened to a phone-in. A caller came on: “Warnock’s got to go.”

The presenter said: ‘But he’s not beennhere long.’

‘He doesn’t know what to do. Tactically he hasn’t got a clue,’ said the caller.

‘Did you go to the game today?’

‘No. I listened to it on your programme.’

He’s not even been to the game and he’s telling me I haven’t got a clue. And they make a programme of people like that. I’ll never forget it. You really haven’t got a chance as a manager.”

In quieter moments, I daydream about writing a series of comic sketches to illustrate this very point.

The concept is simple. In each instance, two club shop bedecked football fans turn up at a random workplace. They proceed to berate the good people going about their business in their offices, showrooms, shops and factories. The hecklers assail them with popular terrace chants, songs and catcalls such as: “You don’t know what you’re doing” or “You’re shit and you know you are”. The employees look on discomfited and bemused by the barrage of abuse – before they finally rebel.

Each time, the sketch will end with ‘our everyday fans’ being forcibly ejected from the premises. It is a form of comic reinforcement through repetition.

I’ve tried it out on a few professionally funny people. But they say it is a tough sell. It’s too high concept, too obscure. And besides football is its own unique domain.  Our Beautiful Game has its own unique rules and expectations. So, football lacks the universal appeal required by satirists – because normal rules and social conventions don’t apply beyond the turnstiles.

But really should football be considered to be ‘in a league of its own’ when it comes to what is tolerable, legitimate or fair comment?

Apart from the inclement weather and the precarious employment conditions, the incremental effect of the things you hear fans shouting is the primary downside I find scouting teams and players.

Exposure to football’s articulate idiots is the scout’s equivalent of industrial illness. What is guileless, charming, surreal or scabrous in July becomes banal, crass, wrongheaded and offensive as the season progresses. As the games, months and years build up so does the corrosive effect on morale.

Fans’ shouts are typified by the repetition of generic, non sequitur, culturally specific catchphrases. ‘Big shoe’ is one, particularly arcane, fan’s favourite for a defender to clear their lines, I repeatedly heard at Partick Thistle’s Firhill Stadium for a time in the late 1990s.

And I will never forget the fan who excused himself to me, as he broke off mid conversation, to join in with a poisonous ditty (with add-ons) about institutional child abuse at a Hampden Cup Final I’d attended as a neutral. Sitting back down, my involuntary companion resumed our previous, friendly in-depth discussion without missing a beat. As an experience, a trip in Dr Who’s Tardis would not have been more disorientating to the senses than this brush with ‘the man in your street’.

Alternatively fans’ commentaries can resemble a form of ‘ticking time bomb’ Tourettes.

The incident I witnessed at Airdrie’s Excelsior Stadium involving a white-bearded grandfather will burn long in the memory. Out of nowhere, the buckled old man rolled back the years, to half tumble, half hurtle down an upper tier flight of stairs to confront a callow 18-year old midfielder on loan at his club from Dundee United. As the keyed-up youngster waited to replace an injured teammate granddad bellowed out: “Andreoni. You’re fucking shite”.

It was a statement of opinion that, given the sparse crowd, left the player a quivering wreck. Shrunk into himself, the boy was visibly diminished on the touchline. Before he’d even had his studs checked, the player’s game was effectively over in terms of meaningful contribution.

Though the incident goes down as the most counterproductive nugget of fan wisdom I’ve ever heard it isn’t notable for being unusual. As for Marco Andreoni, two years after returning to his parent club from Airdrie he had fallen out of the senior game, to play Juniors. He is currently on the missing list, last seen at Kilsyth Rangers. We can draw our own conclusions about his football career’s trajectory since his embattled loan at Airdrie ended.

Equally, the low-level racism, sexism and homophobia – especially when it is perpetrated by ‘slumming it’ middle class fans who otherwise purport to know better – is hard to take. And it should be tackled head on whenever it is encountered and is rightly part of a wider societal debate.

But in pure football terms, ‘culturally reinforced hostility’ pales in comparison to the direct baying for blood and ill will that accompanies genuine onfield injuries. It is the height of poor taste in my opinion.

Fans bemoan a culture of diving, of play-acting yet they’re not averse to shouting ‘dig a hole’ or similar, whenever a rival player crumples to the ground in serious distress. This is especially egregious when the player in question is a part-timer, a glorified gladiator putting his body and his weekday earning capacity on the line to entertain supporters for a paltry fee. And it is doubly offensive, if the injured player is a youngster publicly confronting the reality of their dreams evaporating before their eyes. Inconsolable and mocked on the churned up turf of some God forsaken football outpost. It is a terrible way to end a career – and a family’s dreams for their child.

I can handle it all with equanimity, of course. But as time goes on, what gets harder and harder to brush off is the worst kind of armchair manager condescension. With their Tactics Board reductionism and their Playstation grasp of reality every club’s support boasts fans like these – fans that are the enemy of scouts, managers and players alike.

Unrealistic, in their expectations, irrepressible in their opinions, the main stand know-it-all is immune to all realities of context. They simultaneously overrate their own capabilities as analysts and show a complete lack of respect for football people’s really quite special skills. But, in this respect, maybe that are not so different than many fans – maybe the majority of fans – who don’t understand that what they’re casually dissecting so cruelly and so wrongly. Where they do differ though, what really grates, and what can really undermine young players in particular, is that unrealistic, entitled attitude that comes with every freely expressed observation on the action.

And it is worse, much worse when the one eyed fan has stats to fall back on. In the age of big data and pseudo science fans and journalists cling to numbers like drunks cling to lampposts. And though both offer temporary support and illumination, neither decontextualised numbers nor dimly, blinking lamplight will get you all the way home.

And here’s why.

Football is a difficult game to master because:

  1. It is a game of relatively few chances
    to score and a game of relatively few goals (in relation to other team sports, and specifically American team sports).
  1. It is a game of small margins where very often the best team does not win a match or the best aggregate of individual players (ability-wise) does not prosper
    as a coherent team and tactical unit.
  1. Football is such a dynamic game that large datasets quickly become irrelevant and the small datasets accrued from the fall-out of short term form are simply unreliable.
  1. Virtually every stats-based prediction system does not or cannot distinguish between outputs (things that occur like goals, corner kicks, possession, tackles, passes) and outcomes (things that can be broken down and attributed to a specific cause in a match situation). Basically we can describe what is happening (stats) but we can’t mechanically ascribe a definitive meaning to those stats – something we can rely upon at a simple individual game level.

In the same ‘cold’ way, the modern fan exercises his right to voice his opinion as a paying customer, a client. Support is not an act of faith or devotion but a fiscal contract, to be terminated without penalty when the paying fan finds something ‘better’ to do with their leisure time.

Today’s fan demands access, transparency of governance, communication and most importantly that right to free expression of opinions, whatever they may be.

In return they offer money ‘through the turnstiles’ that in isolation could not sustain their club without the oxygen of subsidies, TV and commercial income. They also provide opinions that have real world consequences for players, managers, coaches, scouts and their families. When the mob blurts out in frustration, post their invective on fans’ forums or type indignant emails to their chairman an inevitable course of events is set in chain, regardless of the facts.

Once the suits in the Directors’ box seats are exposed to the naked aggression of fans nearby then the game is up. A change of manager is inevitable.

Football is a law unto itself as a business and most club chairmen, having made their money in dull, obscure professions, are wholly unprepared for the level of scrutiny and abuse that comes with the territory. And when you scratch the surface, you see that for a variety of reasons most of the boardroom suits really, really just want to belong, to be loved by the rank and file fanbase. That impulse warps the judgement of even the most impeccable of professional decision-makers.

The classic armchair fan, who is almost exclusively drawn from the same corporate talent pool, inevitably entertains the delusion that if only they were running things, buying the players and hiring the staff then their club could be an Anarcho-syndicalist utopia, smelling of fresh paint, roses and polished trophy silver.

In this respect, ‘fan ownership’ is the ultimate ‘call my bluff’ for fans. Its apotheosis is the near mystical Bundesliga model of 50+1 member-owned sporting associations. But it feels like a curious cultural fit in Britain, a country bitterly split along class and economic lines, that has progressively backed away from the unifying social potential of public institutions during my lifetime. Albeit based on a sample of just one fan-owned club, I would have to think that for football clubs, steely but benign dictatorship is a preferable reality to hapless, if well-intentioned, rule by amateurs.

I was recently told a story in confidence about a fan-owned club that illuminates this point.

The inexperienced chairman thought he’d pull a fast one, and save a few quid, by offering contracts that ended in the final week of the regular season.

Almost inevitably, the club qualified for the play offs despite expectation after a late season unbeaten run. What this meant was the club had no-one bar kids under contract to play the play-off games.

The uncontracted team effectively held the club to ransom (which was only fair given the chairman’s bad faith). They asked for increased wages to sign up and lengthy deals.

The delighted players got their deals and got promoted. But the helpless to intervene manager was now saddled with players he didn’t want, players who were not good enough for the step up. The chairman’s wise ass move cost the young boss his job within a matter of months. Internal morale was awful and the squad were too comfortable on their secure deals. The manager has never got back in again – through no fault of his own.

Since then the club have lurched from one onfield crisis to another, the big idea appears to be to fire and hire first-time managers and then hang them out to dry at the first sign of unrest. It is a dreary cycle of rinse, wash, repeat.

The chairman is still in situ and a very visible presence around a club he treats as his private fiefdom. For good football people caught in the crossfire this lack of fan accountability is the definition of rough justice. But it is the nub of the issue with terracing consensus – the tail wagging the dog.

When the game is over, fans, having let off steam, return to their everyday lives and careers blissfully unaware of the impact their scrutiny of players and management has caused. For those on the end of it (those managers and players that the fans claim to support) it is a different story.

Is it any wonder that those left to pick up the pieces when the dust has settled have no respect for fans whatsoever or that fans get the football that their actions deserve?

Greg Gordon is a scout and journalist whose work has appeared in The FT, The Observer, The Sunday Times and many other leading publications. Greg is a member of The Professional Football Scouts Association and works with the groundbreaking placement program for US players www.prep4pro.com. You can read more of Greg’s work at www.howtowatchfootball.co.uk