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