There are now so many outlets for a fan's fury that it has become a 24-hour job to be angry, writes Harry Pearson
A few years ago a friend of mine took his six-year-old son to his first match. It was at the Stadium of Light during a fractious period for the home side. They conceded early. As all around him fans shook their fists and vented their fury with the players, the manager, the owner, my friend looked across at his son. The boy was weeping uncontrollable. “What’s the matter?” his father asked. “I don’t like it. I don’t like it,” his son sobbed. “Why are the men so angry?” They left at half time.
My friend’s son was a sensitive child, admittedly. Why the men are so angry is a good question, though. Recently a letter in WSC raised the topic of the vengeful faces seen in modern goal celebrations contrasted with the more cheery chops of yesteryear. Looking back on my early days as a supporter in the late-1960s I recall neither rage nor happiness at Ayresome Park, just the smell of fried onions and a sense of seething resentment. But maybe that was just because I was sitting next to my granddad.
These days fury is certainly all the rage, though. At one time fans who felt the urge could express their anger for a meagre 90 minutes once a week. Nowadays, however, thanks to an ever more interactive media they can howl indignantly more or less 24 hours a day, every day. They can rant and rave on phone-ins and message boards and on Twitter. They can vent about “horror tackles”, hopeless substitutions and refereeing decisions “that could literally have cost us [insert ludicrous figure here] pounds”.
A vocal minority of fans have become so addicted to rage they actually search for things to get angry about. And like the princess in the fairytale there is no pea so small they cannot be intolerably irritated by it. Just as there are religious fundamentalists who scour the internet looking for obscure articles or videos that disparage their faith and then share them so more people can be offended, so there are now supporters who do the same thing.
These fandamentalists are perpetually so hot under the collar their scarves must smoulder. By passing on every half-baked joke or damning-with-faint-praise remark they come across they spread the rage. And, if they are really lucky, they also create an impression of some wider media conspiracy against their club. Now they can truly froth with indignation. The fandamentalists’ outpourings on media bias are often so splenetic you feel the urge to wipe the spit off your face after reading them.
Sometimes, as David Coleman was fond of remarking, they go too early. In the hours following the Eden Hazard v ballboy incident, Chelsea fandamentalists went prematurely wild over the slanted coverage they believed was on its way. When the media sided with Hazard, the sense of deflation was palpable.
Of course, in order to believe there is a nationwide plot to undermine the club you support you have also to believe that team is so monumentally important in the scheme of things that – like a religion or a political ideal – it actually merits such Machiavellian intrigue. Accusing the news media of being at the forefront of a right-wing plot against the left, or of a liberal plot against the old-style family values, may appear the product of a paranoid mind, but the notion of a massive conspiracy against Manchester United? Frankly it’s so nutty I’m surprised Oliver Stone hasn’t bought the movie rights.
During the 2008 European Championship I was writing a travel piece about Munich. In a swanky restaurant just off Maximilianstrasse I fell into conversation with a Newcastle-supporting couple at the next table, who had been watching a match in nearby Salzburg. They told me that not only did the “London-based media” have an agenda against their club, but that they “knew for a fact” that the north-east correspondent of one national broadsheet “has never even set foot in the press box at St James’ Park”. This latter nugget came – inevitably – from “a guy on the message board who has inside knowledge”.
The Newcastle fans – who hailed from Hertfordshire, incidentally – got so worked up on the traducing of Freddy Shepherd the maître d’ actually came over with some of his staff and discretely moved our tables closer together to reduce the shouting. In the end I asked the couple why they thought an entire highly competitive profit-driven industry would unite for the sole purpose of destabilising his club. The man jabbed his steak knife at me. “They hate us,” he replied emphatically. Conspiracy theories are a bit like God – to believe in them you have to really, really, really want to believe in them.
In the end this self-propelling sense of grievance probably comes down to hormones. The fans attending matches these days are much older than they used to be. Back in the 1970s getting on for 25 per cent of fans at matches were teenagers. These days in the top flight the average age of fans is between 40 and 45. When you are young and watching a football match you are as vigorous and enthusiastic as those on the pitch (more so in the case of Alen Boksic). When you are middle-aged, however, you are seeing men whose every action is a bitter reminder of your own diminishing powers. No wonder they are angry. We pay a fortune simply to have our waning potency ridiculed.
From WSC 323 January 2014