Moving targets

Three blood-curdling stories, one from the present day, two from the past, of the players who fell foul of their own supporters. Jonathan Barnes, Phil Ball and Al Needham explain

James Scowcroft, Ipswich Town
As Ipswich Town took the lead in their home fixture with bottom-of-the-table Reading in March, the celebrations of a certain section of the 19,000 Portman Road crowd were, to say the least, half-hearted. The displeasure of the fans is at the identity of the scorer – the man in the No 10 shirt. Rarely has a player been able to divide a set of fans as drastically as James Scowcroft.

To the outside observer, the Ipswich crowd’s love/hate relationship with the striker is very strange indeed. Is this not the same player, they might ask, who was recently called into England’s B squad after graduating from the under 21s? And aren’t these the same  fans who quite cheerfully put up with Mich D’Avray leading their front line throughout the Eighties?

Well, yes, and yes again, but nevertheless the controversy caused by the forward’s relative talents and his inclusion in Ipswich’s side above crowd favourites Alex Mathie and Richard Naylor has caused the vociferous North Stand home end to split down, or rather across, the middle.

Uncannily like the House of Commons, the supporters and detractors of the 22-year-old local boy have diligently arranged themselves into organised ranks. On the back benches sit the Scowcroft admirers, where only words of encouragement are offered for our man. Venturing a few rows below takes you into anti-Scowcroft territory, the vocal element responsible for distributing flyers outside the ground bearing the slogan “SCOWCROFT OFF”. The striker’s lack-lustre posturing and an apparent unwillingness to get stuck in has gained the anti contingent support in more conservative sections of Portman Road.

Ironically, the hate campaign against Scowcroft has coincided with the club’s most successful run of form for 18 seasons. After parting with £800,000 for Bury’s David Johnson, George Burley has four strikers fighting for two places. At 5ft 6in, Johnson needed a target man to play off and Scowcroft clearly fitted the bill.Unfortunately for the manager’s game-plan,  Scowcroft’s lack of goals (he has hit just 19 in 90 games for Town to date) made it difficult to ignore Alex Mathie, especially when the latter came off the bench to rescue the home game against Bradford in January, scoring two in 25 minutes – as many as Scowie had managed in two months. When Mathie started the next  game on the bench, the campaign against Scowcroft, which had bubbled under the surface for the best part of a year, gathered new momentum.

Inevitably it was not long before the local Evening Star was in on the action. Prompted by an anti-Scowcroft flyer and an impassioned letter from a disgruntled fan in their mailbag, they appointed themselves mediators in the debate, and set up a phone poll, the result of which was a resounding victory for the pro-Scowcroft lobby. The striker, we were told, had been informed of the result and “was not surprised”. However, the anti-Scowcroft party merely upped their efforts to criticise the striker while his supporters blasted the paper for blowing the debate out of all proportion.

Burley was not going to give up his game plan without a fight, dropping Johnson to play Scowcroft and Mathie together for the game at Stoke. The following match at home to Huddersfield, however, coincided with the start of a two-match suspension for Scowcroft, and fans were granted their wish of a Mathie-Johnson forward line.

The two clicked almost immediately and scored three between them in a 5-1 victory. A week later the anti-Scowcroft lobby declared a victory after the local derby with Norwich, when Mathie bagged a first-half hat-trick in a 5-0 win.

Mathie failed to score in any of the next five games and Scowcroft replaced him from the start for the game with Reading.

News of the change was greeted with a ripple of boos by the bumper home gate. When the striker’s sixth goal of the season signalled a chorus of “There’s only one Jamie Scowcroft” from the rear of the North Stand, those below turned to confront the rival element. Only a reminder from a few wiser heads that we’re all supposed to be on the same side prevented anything more serious, not to mention bizarre, taking place.

When Alex Mathie was eventually introduced, for a mere five minutes, the home support were treated to the rare sight of Scowcroft, Mathie and Johnson working together. But few are fooled that this is the solution, and despite Scowie’s match-clincher, a classic centre-forward’s header, the feud as yet shows no signs of ending. Taunts of “Who scored the winner?” greeted the arrival of an anti-Scowcroft campaigner on the bus journey home. The youngster shrugged his shoulders. “Who did f**k all for the rest of the game?” he asked. Details of the Evening Star poll on that particular question will, no doubt, be available soon. Jonathan Barnes

Scott McGarvey, Grimsby Town

Cantona kung-fu precedents? There are none that I know of, but there have certainly been some little contretemps in the past between actors and audience that suggested that Eric’s leap of faith was going to happen sooner or later.

The 1987-88 season was a miserable one for Grimsby. Relegated the previous season from the old Second Division under the hapless Mick Lyons, the club was speeding down a creek without a paddle, with a hole in the boat for good measure. I seem to recall that the game was against Walsall, and that they were much the better side. It was a bitter afternoon, Grimsby were a goal to the bad, and in the old Findus Stand the wags of yesteryear were beginning to scowl.

Grimsby boasted a strike force of one Steve Saunders, lost in the fogs of obscurity, and Scott McGarvey, a somewhat more famous figure in the annals of Grimsby’s substantial list of dysfunctional big-club refugees. Saunders, as was his wont, had just stumbled over the ball and kindly returned possession to Walsall when from across the frozen silence someone shouted: “Saunders – you’re crap!” Something in the player’s reaction, dropping his head slightly to contemplate the mud, told you that he’d heard it and that he’d recognised at least a grain of truth in the assessment.

McGarvey, loitering close by, walked deliberately over to where the shout had come from and stared long and hard into the stand, in a threatening gesture of solidarity with his team-mate. He was only a few feet from me when a Grimsby defender, having regained possession, tried to knock a long ball back upfield in McGarvey’s direction, a fact that Scotty registered too late. The ball bounced from his foot as he attempted to control it, and dribbled out into touch.

None of this would have mattered too much if McGarvey had been even half humble. But he fitted the bill perfectly for a Blundell Park hate campaign. Though possessed of some skill, he clearly felt that his spell with Man Utd entitled him to some sort of special attention, and he strutted around like some fallen blond angel, amazed that he was having to make a living among such mundane company. He was never going to survive the wise men of Grimsby.

As the ball came to rest on the old wooden fence, an old guy to my left decided to come clean: “McGarvey, you’re fucking crap,” he intoned, and his group of mates joined in with the slanging. McGarvey’s reaction was extraordinary. His face turned aubergine: “Fuck you!” he began, and turned his back on the game, for a Walsall defender had taken the throw-in. He pointed threateningly to his accuser, but the old man was already warming to the fight. “Fuck you an’ all!” he countered, laughing through his false teeth. At this, McGarvey lost the plot completely and ran up to the fence, causing some supporters to flinch. All his pent-up feeling spewed out in a torrent: “Come on down an’ try you fuckers!” he screamed, tugging his shirt from his shorts with the clear implication that his accusers could not play football themselves – hardly the point of course.

    But he wasn’t finished. In a slightly calmer voice he continued, as if lecturing his audience: “It’s all right for you lot standing there every week, you bastards,” and then he lost it again – I remember the whole exchange as if it were yesterday – and he began to stamp on the floor like a child denied some sweets, going silent for a moment and then exploding with a string of meaningless oaths aimed at no-one in particular: “Fuckingbastardsfuckers-fuckoffshitbagsarrrr!”, all the time dancing on one leg as the game carried on behind him.

I once saw Nicol Williamson play Macbeth at Stratford. During the floating dagger scene, when all was hushed in anticipation of the soliloquy, someone belched. Though the audience controlled itself, Williamson didn’t. Sitting down on a stool, he began to lecture the audience about how he was there to teach us Shakespeare, and how he was not going to be distracted from delivering one of the greatest speeches in English drama. It was a bizarre moment, because he’d broken the spell, making you want to pinch yourself, to check that it was really happening.

And what McGarvey did was the same, because footballers, like actors, are not supposed to step over the line that separates them from the mortal world of mere spectators, whatever the problem might be. And when they do, albeit very rarely, the magic is somehow gone – as was Scott McGarvey, a few months later. Phil Ball

John McGovern, Nottingham Forest

The Captain. If football ever becomes as corporate as it’s threatening to be, he’ll be known as “Tactical Evangelist” or something like that. He’s the on-field representative of the manager, and the club itself. The skippers we all remember were the living embodiments of the teams they represented – Bobby Moore, Franz Beckenbauer, Stuart Pearce, Bobby Charlton, Billy Bremner. And they get to pick up the silverware and first dibs on a managerial career when they retire, so, all in all, a good doss. You really have to go some to be disliked by the fans when you have that black armband on – just look at the way Bobby Moore was deified when he died.

Which makes it very hard to explain the case of John McGovern. Over his career, he played for three of the biggest clubs in the 1970s – Derby, Leeds and Forest. Along the way, he won two championship medals and, as captain of Forest, led the Champions of Europe. Twice. Out of the 130 or so years that Nottingham Forest have been on the planet the enduring image is of John McGovern in Munich or Madrid, holding aloft the European Cup. So why isn’t he referred to with fondness by Forest fans? Why isn’t he treated with the same reverence as Stuart Pearce, who held the role in a period that saw Forest relegated twice? Why was he, well, disliked so?

Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t hated. And he wasn’t a scapegoat either – hell, as the early 1980s rolled along there were some real targets of abuse at the City Ground (two words: Justin Fashanu) who were so reviled Myra Hyndley could have had a quiet afternoon on the wing, free to concentrate on the game without being impeded by the braying throng. But he never got the hugs and adoration he should have.

Why? When I started going to football games as a  kid, the idea of taking a dislike to one of your own players was a totally alien concept. Perhaps if I’d been allowed to stay up for World Cup games I’d have realised that certain footballers could be unsportsmanlike, naive and reckless, but they would have been the foreign ones and thus didn’t count anyway. Virtually all the audible comments that appeared in speech bubbles  that towered over the main stand in Roy Of The Rovers were positives: “Nipper’s come away with the ball! Go on, you little terrier!”; “These Koreans are tiny, but keen as mustard.” If anyone on the terraces dared shoot their mouth off, you could be sure that said mouther-offer would choke on a fishbone and have his life saved, strangely enough, by the goalie he’s been cussing down all night who just happens to be a part-time doctor.

Those illusions were shattered when, in the Trent End before a game,The Bloke Behind Me consulted the line-up at the back of the programme and sang, to the tune of “Deck The Halls With Boughs Of Holly”, “John McGovern is not playing, Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha, Ha Ha Ha Ha.”

What was that all about? As the Saturdays rolled on, I learned more about John McGovern. He was “as slow as a dead ’oss”. He was “Cloughie’s Lad” long before Nigel Clough wore the red shirt – a suck-ass who had followed his manager from club to club like a fundamentalist Muslim wife. “Ey, McGovern!” bellowed one foghorn-headed Trent Ender during a particularly torrid game “You’d be able to bleddy ’ead the ball if you got it aht o’Cloughie’s arse!”

The truth was, he wasn’t that bad a player – in those days when Forest were rampant, there was no room for dead weight. No, looking back, the reasons that McGovern was resented had nothing to do with what happened on the field. All popular dictators are blessed with less popular lieges who take all the shit – Goebbels, Trotsky, Peter Mandelson etc. And although Cloughie really was adored by the people of Nottingham, there was a hardcore of moaners who were uneasy about Cloughism and his Cult of Personality and therefore took it out on the chief standard bearer. The fact that he looked like your Dad didn’t help either – he exuded an aura of short-back-and-sides sense and dec-ency in an era when we all aspired to the permed bounciness of Tony Woodcock, the flowing elegance of Trevor Francis and the tangled mess of contradictions that was John Robertson.

In the end, John McGovern was unpopular for the same reason that he became so successful – by hitching his star to Brian Clough. Had he not been such an effective conduit between the manager and the squad, no one would have disliked him for the simple fact that no one would have cared. Al Needham

From WSC 136 June 1998. What was happening this month