Ashley Cole received a warm reception from fans as he earned his 100th England cap on Wednesday night in the game against Brazil at Wembley. Yet it wasn't too long ago that he was being booed in the same stadium. The fans who did it were pilloried in turn but, in WSC 262, December 2008, Thom Gibbs wondered if it was all an overreaction

Cowards, idiots, immature, ignorant, crazy, mindless, dimwits, disgraceful. It sounds like a game of press-­cuttings bingo the morning after a hooligan "incident". In fact, these were some of the words used to describe England fans' treatment of Ashley Cole at Wembley on 11 ­October.

The Chelsea defender's crime was a botched back-pass/beautiful cross for Kazakhstan's Zhambyl Kukeyev. He finished neatly to pull the score back to 2-1 in a flat World Cup qualifier England eventually won 5‑1. Some vociferous members of the 89,000 crowd booed Cole's every touch afterwards, and the incensed reaction from players and journalists seemed just as loud.

Stan Collymore said in his Daily Mirror column: "I'd rather see the stadium half-empty than hear England players mindlessly abused," and that "even the likes of Millwall fans were supportive of Cole" during the phone-in he hosts on Talksport. Shocking! Collymore also suggested that the London crowd was to blame, citing the supportive behaviour of fans around the country when Wembley was being rebuilt. Presumably this is the same charming attitude that saw England fans sing "I'd rather be a Paki than a Turk" during a qualifier against Turkey at Sunderland in 2003, and perfectly ­good‑natured abuse meted out to Peter Crouch and Owen Hargreaves during matches at Old Trafford before the 2006 World Cup.

Elsewhere, that perennial whipping boy the faceless "so-called fan" took a beating from everyone from broadsheet journalists (the Independent's Sam Wallace went for "mindless", Matt Dickinson in the Times chose "dimwits") to Rio Ferdinand, who helpfully suggested that the booing fans should feel "ashamed of themselves".

The "actual" fans then hit back, clinging to their right to boo as if it was enshrined in some footballing constitution dreamt up by our forefathers and Trevor Brooking. Mark Perryman of the England Fans Supporters' Group told the Daily Express: "We have the right to give the manager and players some stick when they do something wrong. Why shouldn't the people who spend so much time and money on supporting England be able to criticise if they want to?" He was supported by Steven Howard of the Sun, invoking the fans' ­"entitlement" to boo, and calling Cole a "prima-donna" and a "whinger".

Cole is something of a special case for a number of well publicised and odious reasons, and it's safe to say that if Wes Brown had made the error he would not have received such vehement abuse. But when Graeme Le Saux suggested the booing would "never have happened at club level", in a dressing-down akin to a school-dinner lady asking you if you talk with your mouth full at home, the debate slipped into absurdity.

Of course it wouldn't have happened at club level, Graeme, because watching England and following a club are two wholly different experiences. Supporting England has become an increasingly ugly bastion of confused jingoism and misdirected national pride. Supporting a club is just as illogical, but with more rituals, consistency and community than international football could ever provide. Home internationals, especially qualifiers against minnows, fit neatly into the terrifying idea of football as "product". Tickets, travel, merchandise, food and drink are expensive, but you're guaranteed goals in a state-of-the-art stadium. England fans may not be right to boo Cole, but you can understand their position given the money they spent to watch a typically lacklustre Wembley performance.

No one would be up in arms if a fan complained about mistakes on a replica shirt. Take David Seaman's 1996 psychedelic mess of a goalkeeper's jersey, the brash and tasteless sartorial equivalent of Ashley Cole, some might say. If the version fans bought had one sleeve six inches longer than the other and "England" was misspelt on the crest, would they not be entitled to complain? Is booing a top player for a dreadful back-pass not the equivalent reaction to a defect in a different kind of "football product"?

Conspicuously absent from the coverage of the affair was acknowledgement that booing has become something of a sporting pursuit in itself. England's support is not the same as the sorry-faced assortment of junior hen parties and miscellaneous losers who attend Big Brother eviction nights, but mainstream entertainment seems more misanthropic and pantomime-esque with every passing series of X Factor. The "boo" as a gesture has lost all real meaning and, during a game that England were never in danger of losing, its use by a section of fans towards an unpopular player from an unpopular club should not have come as a surprise. 

From WSC 262 December 2008

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