Tottenham fans once adored Teddy Sheringham, but Adam Powley reflects upon the awful reception he got when he returned to White Hart Lane with Manchester United
“Tormentors”, “enemies” and, according to Radio 5 Live’s Peter Drury, “mindless supporters”. Just a few of the accusations levelled at Spurs fans by the media following Teddy Sheringham’s acrimonious return to White Hart Lane. Over reams of newsprint and hours of broadcasting time devoted to reporting Tottenham’s first home defeat of the season, radio, TV, press and even players predictably focussed on the treatment that the fans meted out to Sheringham. And once again, they got it wrong.
Given that the large majority of a 26,000 crowd were fairly demonstrative in expressing their anger at Teddy’s departure, you would have thought that reporters and commentators might have sought the opinions of fans to find out the real reasons for so much obvious bad-feeling. Instead they resorted to that tired old chestnut of describing Spurs supporters as “fickle” in their affections. The Sun’s Martin Samuel poured scorn on the fans, sarcastically remarking that “poor Sheringham” is in our eyes “for some reason... a traitor”. Even the usually reliable David Lacey at the Guardian was full of admiration for Sheringham’s ability to “deal calmly with the boos and jeers of Tottenham fans who for six years had worshiped the ground he trod”.
Such comments reveal a profound but all-too familiar failure on the part of the mainstream media and the players themselves to understand the feelings of your average football supporter. When the options for protest over a highly contentious issue are limited, supporters have to make their views heard in the most direct way possible, ie shouting and singing themselves hoarse at a televised match. The Sheringham case was a clear example.
All Spurs fans knew that Sheringham was going to leave the club. All of us know – better than any reporter or player – that the team is not in a position to challenge for trophies and that the current administration is dragging our club down. And all of us knew that Sheringham would move to a club where his ambitions could be better realized.
What sticks in the craw is the nature of his departure and his prior behaviour. As club captain Sheringham was expected to show the same kind of loyalty displayed by Gary Mabbutt. The constant rumours about Teddy’s disaffection at Spurs were a nagging reminder that the player wasn’t happy. In view of what’s happened, he should have gone public, or at least resigned the captaincy.
But what made us even more incensed was Sheringham’s constant assertion that he was a Spurs fan through and through. He repeatedly referred to Tottenham being “his club”, pointedly made references to his intense dislike for Arsenal and readily identified himself as ‘one of us’. His subsequent wish to leave and win trophies with another club glaringly showed how the football player is certainly not one of us: if you are a genuine fan you either win things at Spurs or it’s not worth winning them at all.
None of this was even considered by journalists and footballers quoted in the press. To show how dazzlingly naive both player and reporters were, before the game Sheringham was asked what kind of reaction he was expecting. He mused that he expected a good reception from the home crowd, claiming that he’d even received congratulations from Spurs fans. The reality was somewhat different.
Rarely has their been so much hate directed at a Spurs old boy as there was that Sunday. It is indeed sad that a player of Sheringham’s calibre was taunted with cries of Judas and that he received the biggest cheer heard for many a season when he missed the penalty.
It’s sadder still that thousands of fans were reduced to spouting pure invective, but what other option did we have? Sheringham had shown a stunning lack of judgement over our feelings and quite frankly deserved all he got.
I doubt whether he’ll give it too much thought when he’s polishing his championship winners’ medal, but I for one am glad I was able to give vent to my frustrations. I did help to pay his wages for six years, after all.
Sheringham isn’t the first player to do the dirty on the fans and definitely won’t be the last. Paul Ince still receives abuse at West Ham for the grossly insensitive way he handled his move to Manchester United. And Man Utd fans were themselves the subject of much criticism over the incident when Andrei Kanchelskis left Old Trafford, but were never given the opportunity to explain their justifiable anger at his messy departure to Everton.
Instead, they too were described as fickle, vindictive ‘terrace yobs’ who failed to appreciate all the efforts the player had put in for them.
If any lesson is to be learned from the Sheringham saga it is that players, whatever they say, are not like fans. But then we knew that already. What is more worrying is that in these days of mega-bucks football with the fan as ‘consumer’, any form of strident, vocal opposition from fans is seen as invalid and out of keeping with football’s cuddly new image.
The media instead resort to labelling frustrated fans with convenient descriptions that bear a nasty similarity to the kind of language oft heard during the bad old hooligan days. As a result justifiable grievances are treated as an irrelevance. So-called ‘mindless supporters’ are to be seen but not heard, it seems.
From WSC 128 October 1997. What was happening this month