7 December 2009 ~ There was a sketch on The Fast Show some years back showing a replica-shirt-wearing, new-era fan at Highbury with a picnic hamper, annoying all those around him with a lack of basic football knowledge, applauding an opponent's goal and announcing that next season he would be switching his allegiance to Newcastle. Naturally those of us who've stockpiled the necessary decades of loyal sufferance enjoyed a morally superior chuckle at the expense of a vaguely recognised caricature. One aspect of the parody, though, didn't quite ring true. Applauding an opponent is very much a habit of old school fans, not the Premier League generation.

As late as the 1980s, when the game was supposedly at its most spiteful off the field, it wasn't uncommon for warm applause to break out for a particularly dominant away performance or an outstanding goal or move. When Liverpool won imperiously 5-0 at the Hawthorns in 1985, there was more than a smattering of appreciation among the home terraces, a fairly typical occurrence when Liverpool travelled. A couple of years later, Crystal Palace were granted the same begrudging but nonetheless evident recognition while winning 6-0 at Birmingham on the back of a blazing performance by a young Ian Wright. It wasn't universal or by any means enthusiastic, but it was an acknowledgement of good, or even devastatingly good, play by your opponents. But these were the last remnants of the post-war epoch, when quality players were genuinely admired regardless of which club they played for and when vehemently partisan support wasn't necessarily seen as the only possible expression of an affection for the game.

Nowadays, the only reaction to away teams seems to be the tediously repetitive ironic cheer. It was much in evidence at Upton Park on Saturday or at least as long as the scores were level between West Ham and Manchester United. Away player makes a mistake – ironic cheer. Away player protests innocence after being penalised for a foul – ironic cheer. Gary Neville has to leave the field after 30 minutes due to injury – ironic cheers, followed by chorus of jeers as he heads towards the tunnel. Paul Scholes or Darren Gibson score stunning goals – complete silence in the home sections. But we shouldn't single out West Ham fans. Every week the front rows of spectators visible on TV with their agitated gestures, hateful expressions and vitriolic vocals suggest that the opposition is only there to be scorned, reviled and despised from the safety of the seats.

Immune from any possible attack thanks to stewards, police, cameras and the players' code of conduct and sense of responsibility that comes with earning several thousand pounds a week, many fans have developed a righteous bravado that grants them the right to yell and gesticulate as much as they want. At the same time he (or she, but it's mostly he) enjoys the privilege of protection because he's shelled out serious money for the right to emote. It's what being a true fan's all about, right? God forbid that you fail to respond to an opposition player within hearing distance by not screaming abuse at him or making an obscene gesture. That would be shocking proof that you just don't care enough.

Certainly top players seem more detached from the fans than ever before, living as they do in a parallel universe coated in cash, and heavily protected from the public by their clubs. But whether you think Gary Neville has been a great one-club servant to the English game or that he's a gormless wazzock with a daft moustache, it seems just plain wrong to cheer when he's injured. On one level, it's a rather sad admission of defeat – the home fans are tacitly conceding they probably won't score, so the best chance they'll get to cheer is at an opponent's misfortune. On another level, and at the risk of sounding like a man out of time, it's just not decent.

Strangely enough, there was an example of opposite collective behaviour in the Champions League last month when Wolfsburg won 3-0 at Besiktas. At 0-2 the home fans, disgusted at their team's performance, turned to the directors' box and demanded the ousting of chairman Yildirim Demimoeren. Then they greeted Wolfsburg's third goal with cheers and applause, began to chant the away side's name and further acclaimed the visiting victors at the final whistle. Wolfsburg responded by throwing their shirts to the Besiktas fans. The Turkish supporters were probably keener on making a point to their own board than they were on sharing the love with the German champions, but at least their discontent was channelled in a positive way. In effect, all they were really saying to their own club was, albeit in a mischievous fashion, "Look at how the game is supposed to be played. Play good football and we promise to appreciate it too." For anyone who thinks that's outdated codswallop, there are at least 27,000 fans in Istanbul who disagree. From England, though, the Corinthian spirit seems to have long since fled. Ian Plenderleith

Comments (17)
Comment by el gato negro 2009-12-07 12:07:05

Well, I remember Thierry Henry being given a standing ovation (during and after the game) by the Stadium of Light on the final day of the 2002-03 season. But I suppose it's easier to be generous of spirit when the player you are applauding has scored more goals in 38 matches than your whole team put together...

Comment by paul123 2009-12-07 12:13:12

Not sure that using West Ham fans as an example is fair on the rest of us. They are not generally known for their sympathetic tone towards even their own players, let alone the opposition.

Oldham generously applauded Norwich at Carrow Road this Saturday, Crewe couldn't have been more accommodating to the Canaries when we played them in our last game before Premier promotion in 2004 at Gresty Road (they applauded our goals and let us invade the pitch at full time), and our home fans applauded every one of Arsenal's four goals when they took us apart at Carrow Road a few months later.

Chivalry is not completely dead Mr Plenderleith; one just has to look in the right places.

Comment by imp 2009-12-07 12:47:58

I am genuinely cheered to hear that.

Comment by potts4 2009-12-07 12:50:15

I thought for once that West Ham could be used as an example without the usual comments but, oh know, underneath in these comments someone had to have a go.

Well considering the warm, sometimes damn right hot, receptions that certain ex-players get, i don't think West Ham are that bad. Plus i can remember a Sheffield Wednesday team teraing us apart for our second 4-0 defeat in a week about ten years back. Benito Carbine however (admittedly through the fans scarfs, hats and one season ticket being launched on the pitch) managed to gain a standing ovation for his performance.

It would only be the london teams and man utd that do not get the standing ovations, just like Norwich would never ever give a former Ipswich man a standing ovation. Sorry if West Ham just have a few more rivals than you.

But no, due to the Paul Ince thing which other people still think we should let go (he was in another teams shirt, no matter what anyone says, they would hate the man for just as long) and the quite frankly (no pun intended) excaggerated Frank Lampard story of our fans, we will forever be known as the team that boos its own and opposition players.,

Comment by t.j.vickerman 2009-12-07 14:03:39

I was quite surprised to hear the large number of cheers at Gary Neville pulling up. But I suppose he's never really endeared himself to supporters of any club other than his own, despite his 85 caps playing very reliably for England. I wouldn't expect a similar reaction to someone like Evra, Fletcher or Valencia.

It would be easy to put it down to the unending hype machine of the modern Premier League, so I will. But I feel longstanding supporters of lower league sides generally have a more balanced approach due to being made numb by year after year of disappointment. Still, I think Robbie Savage pulling up injured would be cheered at pretty much any ground in the country...

Comment by superfurryandy 2009-12-07 14:29:46

I remember United fans giving an ovation when Real Madrid ripped them apart at OT a few seasons back. I even remember us Enfield fans applauding the performance of a Barnet keeper back in the 80s! For those that don't know Enfield/Barnet is the greatest rivalry in the world of football. Yes.

Comment by malickfan 2009-12-07 14:36:25

Jimmy Bullard was given a sympathetic hand on Saturday when he went off against Villa.

Comment by therealfacup 2009-12-07 14:39:10

I wonder if this is a trait of the higher league, or larger crowds, crowds where you are more anonymous among the many?

At the games we've been to this season, there's never been more than about 3000 fans, in fact mostly only hundreds and there are examples of corinthian spirit in almost every game. These are games where you can hear what the players say, what the ref says, what the fans say. There have been some unsavoury/annoying moments, of course, but they are in the minority compared to generous applause for the opposition when they do well. Indeed, we have even seen benches clapping at opposition goals/moves etc.

The anonymity of the larger crowd is less evident lower down the pyramid and fans aren't afforded the protection of the masses. Having said that, we have had less than Corinthian dealings with the hierarchy of certain teams this season and if the clubs themselves can't uphold such values, why should the fans bother?

Ta, Damon.

Comment by alloneword 2009-12-07 14:43:28

"God forbid that you fail to respond to an opposition player within hearing distance by not screaming abuse at him or making an obscene gesture. That would be shocking proof that you just don't care enough."

It seems that no matter where I sit at the football I always end up with a loudmouth prick like this behind me. I get more annoyed at his complete suspension of any reasonable judgement where refereeing decisions are concerned though.

If one of our team lynches an opponent, it's always a fair tackle, and any referee who suggests otherwise is subject to five minutes of solid, shouty abuse. Meanwhile the cleanest tackle by an opponent will have him screaming for a red card like the weedy kid in the playground running to teacher.

As well as wishing he'd just grow up for God's sake, I always wonder quite where the attraction lies in paying 20 quid to experience nothing but raw anger for 90 minutes. He derives no pleasure when we score, has no appreciation of positive play by either side, and still goes home whinging if we win. What's the point?

Comment by footysphere 2009-12-07 15:49:41

A few seasons back Steve Kabba turned out for Grimsby Town in a match a Bramall Lane. He was magnificent, and when he was subbed late into the game all four sides of the ground rose to give him a standing ovation. A few weeks later he signed for the Blades.

Comment by Lincoln 2009-12-07 17:19:41

It spreads further than simply not acknowledging good play. I was at Fulham v Man Utd a couple of years back and 4 Japanese students had gone in the home end. When Man Utd scored they celebrated. For this crime they were escorted out of the ground. I asked a steward why, the answer was to prevent a fight. So the offence is not to strike someone, as in every other walk of life, but to do something that might encourage it. The fact that fans are so partizan they can't even stand for someone to cheer in the 'wrong' section of the ground upset my dad enough to send a letter of complaint to FFC, which is probably filed in a land fill site somewhere. Mind you it turns out the stewards were right because at the Fulham V Roma game, Roma scored a last minute goal where a fan in the 'wrong' section celebrated (his English Fulham friend had brought him) and was punched and wrestled to the floor by a seemingly well to do middle age man in glasses and a suit. It is a sad reality of football now that celebrating a goal scored by the other team is akin to calling someone's mum a whore while flashing them.
That said, the Crewe game mentioned earlier by a Norwich fan stands out because the Crewe fans actually made the effort of staying behind to clap the Canaries and join in the party, and clap the soon to be leaving Iwan Roberts in his final game after he bagged two goals.

Comment by therealfacup 2009-12-07 18:22:11

Here are further examples of your point from League 1.

Comment by Broken Clock 2009-12-07 18:22:40

Deco was given a standing ovation when substituted earlier this season at the SOL. The Chelsea staff in the boardroom apparently commented that it would never happen to a visiting player at Stamford Bridge. As did a few of their "lads" in the pub afterwards.
Alex Sabella also recieved asimilar farewell when subbed with a few minutes to go while losing 6-1 against us for Sheff Utd at Roker. He thoroughly deserved it as his still remains the greatest outfield visiting performance Ive seen at either of our places.
I dont think weve ever had anyone good enough to be applauded off by our fans never mind the oppositions.

Comment by AFanning 2009-12-07 23:31:48

On the final day of the 2000-01 season Liverpool played away at Charlton having just completed their historic cup treble the Wednesday before. After a comfortable 4-0 win the Liverpool players celebrated with the 3 trophies in front of their supporters and then preceeded to walk past all 3 home stands acknowledging the Charlton fans applause.

Comment by markcurtains 2009-12-08 09:39:46

Whilst some Wednesday fans are no paragons of virtue, (especially when it comes to ex-Blades) Chris Brunt received an almost rapturous welcome back from with West Brom last week (unforunately for us, the players also gave him a nice welcome; the freedom of our defence) and Dion Dublin was visibly taken aback for 4 sides of Hillsborough chanting his name as he was subbed off in his last ever game for Norwich having announced his retirement from playing.

Comment by kbmac 2009-12-08 10:46:26

I am often criticised by my son for being "too neutral" by acknowledging good opposition play and commenting on tackles as I see them rather than through blinkered spectacles. He is a Dunfermline fan and we have witnessed three Cup Final defeats to Celtic but we have stayed to watch Celtic lift the trophy on each occasion and applauded their players. One of the reasons for this change in behaviour is the introduction of segregation. I understand that because of serious hooligan problems segregation was felt necessary but in truth it could be abandoned for all but a few teams especially in Scotland where crowds are generally quite low. My football supporting education was on the old terraces at Firhill (Partick Thistle) which I suppose was a desperate football education but mingling with opposition fans meant you could support your team but had to accept that they had a right to support theirs. It also prevented all but the seriously stupid from commenting on any play too outrageously. Points were debated sometimes feverishly but other than on very rare occasions punches were not thrown. Mobile police within the crowd soon spotted likely problems brewing and nipped them in the bud. In some ways segregation bolsters the mob mentality whereas integration fosters a more accepting culture. One of the most ridiculous examples of segragation occurs in Dundee. Dundee has two football teams with loyal supporters but it is not a divided city so an the occasions when the teams meet supporters travel into town together, drink together, get seperated for the duration of the match and then meet up again afterwards. Obviously Dundee has its nutters like any place else and some people will take things too far but the more we set the game up as "us v them" by seperating fans the more the poison of the mob will spread. I read recently that one team was bringing back a mixed stand for families. (Can't remember who). Let's hope it is a success.

Comment by Jongudmund 2009-12-11 12:02:02

Gianfranco Zola scored one of the best goals ever against Shrewsbury, in an FA Cup game at the old Gay Meadow. When he came to play in an exhibition match to open the new stadium he was greeted with rapturous applause by Shrewsbury fans.

I think Chelsea fans applauded him the first time he took West Ham to Stamford Bridge.

Generally there is an acknowledgement among lower league fans when other teams' players are good. I'll often hear someone as they flick through a programme going "Shit, he's a good player, shit, he's a good player, we're in for it today."

Or maybe that's just at Shrewsbury.

Related articles

Black Boots And Football Pinks: 50 lost wonders of the beautiful game
by Daniel GrayBloomsbury Sport, £9.99Reviewed by David StubbsFrom WSC 380, November 2018Buy the book Daniel Gray attended his first...
From Sunday league shouts to ultras karaoke – exploring the sounds of football
Get Some Chalk On Your Boots is both an amusing and poignant project that shows football as “a sport that thrives on the physical energy of...
Tickets stubs are more than paper – they are a link to matchday memories
Whether you keep them in an old shoe box or put them up on a wall, ticket stub collections are a small part of what defines the match-going fan...

More... fan culture