Fans will always moan about their team but Jason McKeown thinks some criticism goes too far
Having minutes earlier scored his second goal of the game to put Bradford City 3-1 up over Barnet, striker James Hanson deserved to feel good about himself. Yet after failing to keep an over-hit pass towards him from going out of play, the Annoying Bloke Behind (ABB) was unsentimental in his response: "Piss off Hanson, you useless prick!"
Such is the lot of a professional footballer. The ability to cope with stick from the crowd is a requirement for anyone who wants to forge a successful career. Yet, at times, the ferocity and nature of the abuse can be difficult to listen to for the player in question (and they can often hear). Will being singled out make them perform better?
I watch Bradford home and away, and 90 per cent of my fellow supporters get behind the players and offer encouragement. But there always seems to be a loud minority, whose apparent mission is to be personally offended by how bad the team is. Talking to fans of other clubs, their experience is the same.
At Port Vale on a Tuesday night the other week, a group of older, clearly die-hard fans chose to sit near us. All they could do was act outraged at City's shortcomings, swearing loudly when mistakes were made. When Bradford had spells on top, they fell silent. I'm not questioning their commitment, but I can't see why you would bother travelling two hours through Manchester rush-hour traffic to be so miserable.
Through childhood your club's players were heroes and you had posters of them all over your bedroom. As you get older that relationship seems to change – perhaps a crushing realisation that our heroes are humans with flaws occurs too often – and adulation is replaced by apathy. It's no longer about what a player can do well, but everything else that they can't. This season we've signed midfielder Chris Mitchell, who can cross the ball better than anyone we've had for years. Oh, but he can't tackle. Guess which aspect of his game is attracting the most attention.
Even when players are popular, it's amazing how quickly people turn on them. The aforementioned Hanson was something of a romantic buy – he was stacking shelves in a supermarket while playing part-time for non-League neighbours Guiseley when he was "discovered" in 2009. During his first Bradford season he was a revelation, our top-scorer with 13 goals and receiving the affectionate chant "He used to work at the Co-op" – all the while reportedly earning just £250 a week. A more difficult second season saw the goals dry up and many supporters turned on him. "He thinks he's made it" was a frequent complaint, as though we don't want our footballers to believe they're actually footballers. "Send him back to the Co-op" has been a regular cry going into this, his third, season.
But why? Hanson is hardly a millionaire footballer who we can't relate to. He is a local lad, living our dream and putting every ounce of effort towards it at the very least. Yet somehow it's acceptable to swear at him and to boo him and to fold our arms in disgust when he loses possession, all masked by the mantra: "We've paid our money so we can say what we want."
Being a footballer looks like a bloody tough gig. Yes, the rewards are plentiful and many people in society have far more demanding roles and more difficult existences. Yet if we dislike their privileged lifestyle so much, why bother paying money to watch them play? There are certainly better things to do than shivering through 90 minutes at Vale Park, watching our goalkeeper Matt Duke accidentally punch the ball into his own net, and then telling him that he's a "cockhead" for messing up.
Criticism at football matches can be good. No one would preach simple-minded, happy-clappy behaviour other than Sky. But too often it spills over into hatred for no obvious reason than to satisfy a personal need to feel indignant. And too often it becomes counter-productive, leading to worse performances on the pitch. Then the club loses more regularly, crowds dwindle and the ABB stays to loudly blame everyone but themselves. Every supporter has a right to air their opinion – but that doesn't give them the right to ruin the players' performance and atmosphere of a game for other supporters.
From WSC 297 November 2011