By Tony Attwood
It was just over a month ago that Untold published the first article in what became (somewhat to my surprise) a long running series. The headline was “Why so much hate?” and it reflected upon the language used in football. In a later article we picked up on the phrase “toxic rhetoric” to describe what was being said.
From that point on we began to be interested in why there seemed to be so much negativity in football supporting, whether Arsenal received more negative coverage than other clubs, and from there this took me onto the issue of tales that are told which appear to become true, just because they are discussed so often. Tales such as what turns out to be the false belief that spending money generally helps a club. Or that Arsenal get the most injuries, that changing managers improves a club’s fortune etc. I’m working on putting an index together of the articles so you can find them, should you wish to but here’s a quick list of topics for now.
- Transfers take a club up the league.
- A top goalscorer in the team is essential for winning the league.
- Arsenal don’t score enough.
- Changing managers is good.
- Reducing complex issues to single items is helpful.
- Arsenal need to spend more.
- Arsenal get more injuries.
- Arsenal’s problem is that they don’t shoot enough
I wanted to know why these stories keep going round and around even though they are palpably not true – and indeed why the stories seemed to be amplified more and more as every week passes.
Slowly the answer emerged, and I thought it might be interesting (for me at least if not for anyone else) to summarise what is going on, as I now understand it.
First, humans tend to look for simple explanations for complex affairs and simple resolutions to complex problems. Before science came along people believed in witches as the source of evil, and religious or magical chants as a way of making life better. Science displaced some of this, but that deep rooted wish for simple, single issue explanations is a fundamental within many people.
It’s one of the issues psychiatrists talk about: the problem with people who openly say, “if only I could… then all would be fine.” The … could be “have a child”, “find a partner”, “get some money”, “move away”, “lose weight”… but the notion is always false. Life is more complex, but we seek to make it simpler.
Then we had the excellent analysis by Dr Drew Gray, head of history at the University of Northampton, which showed how newspapers have developed into products that have moved further and further into the propagation of myths in the desperate search for readership, and how this has continued into radio, TV, and of course the internet.
In short, making up stories that give instant answers and which instantly appeal to readers is cheaper than researching the truth, and gets more readership than the truth, because we all appear to have a desire for the sensational, the easy to understand, and stuff that knocks the powerful.
Put those first two points together, and the last thing the media is going to do is say, “actually this is rather complex”. Try that as a commentator, and you don’t get interviewed. Say, “Arsenal get the most injuries and it is all Wenger’s fault” and you’ll get coverage in the paper every time, and the myths will be continued.
Thus the media build on what seems to be natural inclinations inside most of us to look for simplistic explanations and simplistic solutions, and we have an ability to believe in them even when they are wrong, and repeatedly shown to be wrong.
But this situation has become more and more exacerbated by Twitter which builds specifically on these false desires within all of us: the desire to have simple answers which can be expressed very quickly.
Stefan Stieglitz, professor of professional communication in electronic media at the University of Duisburg-Essen hit on the point when he was quoted in the Guardian saying, “If people get new information that is in contrast to what they believe then they tend to neglect this new information for as long as possible.”
The media laps it up – it is cheap and a way to survive, and telling people that, “it’s much more complex than that,” is rarely a way to win friends. But there is something worse than that going on.
For what struck me as I started to write this series of articles, I found that many readers genuinely didn’t understand what I meant by things like “research”, “evidence” and “logical deduction” and I was taken aback by this.
The first time someone said, in response my call for evidence that he was using “the evidence of my own eyes” I thought he was taking the piss. Quickly I came to realise that he actually meant it, and that a lot of people really did not see that there was a whole raft of evidence supporting the notion that there were reasons for not buying a striker. By the time one correspondent said, “Tony, you’re losing the argument,” in response to a lot of people simply saying I was wrong, I knew that my assumption that universal education led to an awareness of what “evidence” meant, was completely misplaced.
Worse, many people saw the issue as black and white – that in raising this point, I was saying “we do not need a striker at all” rather than something more complex than that. For my argument was that yes, a striker could help, if we can find exactly the right striker, who isn’t going to fail us in the first season, as so many expensive new strikers do (for all the reasons and evidence I have given in previous articles with which I won’t bore you with it again).
What we have is the psychology of common sense which suggests that everything can be seen and understood by looking at it (the same vision which suggests gravity doesn’t exist because we can’t see it, that the sun goes round the earth because that’s what appears to happen each day in the sky, and that the earth is flat.)
So the desire for simple common sense answers is one that seems to be central to the human psyche -although those of us who are interested in research and science can stand aside from it. But there is a deliberate proliferation of chatter in order to reduce our access to hard real information. Rational thought is being pushed aside to make way for the new superstitions.
And the reason for this is simple: it is in the media’s interests to do it.
But why then does Arsenal suffer the most? We’ve been looking at this for years – here’s an article from three years ago, asking the self same question. I’ve also set out my view, tracing the problem back to 1 October 1996.
The fact is we are being drawn more and more away from proper understandings of what is going on in football, because the media have a clear interest in feeding gossip and untruths rather than insight and research – a clear interest because a) such articles feed into our base level psychology which likes simplistic single-line answers and b) because it is the cheapest way to run the media.
But this little series of articles hasn’t been all negative, for it shows us a most likely explanation of why most managers in football fail.
Around 40 managers are sacked each year in the 92 Premier League and Football League. In the course of a year around 15 or so managers working the league for the first time will be sacked. The average tenure of a manager who is sacked is little over a year. Most first time managers in the league who are sacked never get another job as a manager.
The whole situation is utterly insane – because it is built on a business that has come to adopt a series of insane beliefs in common sense, wild rumours and unsubstantiated claims which the media pump out day after day, which the club owners hear and start to believe, and which then as a result sack the manager – an action which most of the time has no positive benefit at all. Most of the time clubs would be better keeping the manager and waiting until they can find one of the few who actually knows what he is doing.
A few clubs keep managers. Ferguson was appointed manager of Man Utd on 6 November 1986. In 1989/90 his team won two games in 17 league matches, and he was on the edge of being sacked. Fortunately for the club, unfortunately for Arsenal, someone there was wise enough to keep him.
To see how crazy the current beliefs are, try this league table. It is the normal table you will be familiar with – last season’s league positions, but with two more columns added to show expenditure on players in £m. The top spending club last season came fourth, the second top spending club got relegated. The last column shows where the club would have been if the amount of money spent had been the way the league position was calculated. Leicester, for example would have been 7th. Arsenal 14th.
The table does not say, “don’t buy anyone” but rather than there is no direct link between how much one spends and how well the club does.
|POS||CLUB||P||W||D||L||GF||GA||GD||PTS||Net £m||£ pos|
|7||State Aid Utd||38||16||14||8||65||51||14||62||26.5||9|
- Viking FK 0 Arsenal Lots. Time for the anti-Arsenal to say you can’t judge anything from friendlies.
- Viking – Arsenal 0-8: OOOOOOOOhhhhh Santi Cazorlaaaaaaa
- The Vikings vs The Arsenal. They have Thor and the longboats. We’ve got the gunpowder.
- Scoring more goals by buying a defensive midfielder…