By Paul Fowler
A few months ago I made a conscious decision never ever to post any opinions on football blogs again. Being a fervent gooner, and apparently currently undergoing the phenomenon that is trophy-cold-turkey – which if you believe the press, is a football condition only experienced by Arsenal fans – I naturally took exception to a statement posted by a Chelsea fan on the Guardian Football site at the end of last season, that agreed with the theme of a David Lacey article that Arsenal should forget about playing ‘good football’ and concentrate on playing ‘winning football’ instead.
Bristling with indignation at Lacey’s barely hidden thesis that ‘winning football’ is ipso facto ‘good football’, I proceeded to lecture the Chelsea supporter about fundamental tenets of philosophy and warned him about the crime of the ‘is ought shift’. He ignored my tuition and failed to see the non-sequitor of his argument; he stated that the object of playing football was to win games and that if a team won more games than any others, like Chelsea had, then clearly they were playing ‘gooder’ football than anyone else!
No matter how much I remonstrated and demonstrated that one cannot justify value judgements, i.e. ‘good’ football, on matters of fact, i.e. Chelsea having won more games, he would have none of it. I even suggested, much to my own personal discomfort, that it is quite possible that Chelsea could have played ‘good’ football as well as winning football during the season but the former claim was a matter of individual opinion unlike the latter which was factual and not open to debate.
As always, the blog exchange deteriorated into insult and abuse – and I suspect he is still paying a private detective to find me – when a timely intervention by my wife brought me back from the brink of insanity and a 12 hour night shift at the computer face.
She simply said, and I have to believe it was without any irony whatsoever, that my Chelsea sophist was only acting like any ‘good’ supporter would, out of loyalty to his club. If her assertion is correct – and as far as I know she has never been wrong about anything – then it’s about time we as supporters of football, whether it is good, bad, indifferent, or winning football, stepped back from our tribal allegiances and considered objectively what traits do indeed characterise ‘good’ football supporters.
It’s a cold autumn night in the mid-sixties at Ellersie Road, mistakenly known as Loftus Road, in Shepherds Bush. I am playing in midfield for QPR in a South East Counties floodlit match against Charlton or Leyton Orient, I can’t remember which. There was no Elvis for us as we ran on to the pitch, only the tinny, 2-year-out-of-date, echo of ‘Hermann’s Hermits’ evidently being into something good.
There were probably a hundred odd ‘good’ supporters watching us from the gloom of the steeply rising terraces. I can’t remember the score at the time but I do recall that it was the second half and we were attacking the ‘General Smutts’ end and defending the ‘Springboks’ end. My extended family lived on the White City Estate and my Nan had worked in both these pubs at some time, hence the geographical precision.
I remember breaking into the penalty area with only the keeper to beat and shooting. It wasn’t that powerful, I must admit, and certainly would not have hurt the keeper’s fingers as he pushed the ball around the post, if, indeed, he even felt it. I ran to pick up the ball to take the corner and as I did so, this ‘good’ QPR supporter – an old bloke in a raincoat – leant over the wall and hissed into my impressionable 16 year-old ear: “You shitbag!”
As I walked to the corner flag, a mess of emotions, I could hear him repeating several times his assessment of my qualities as a player, and each time he voiced it for all to hear, the London accent became harsher, the shit became more pronounced and elongated, and the bag more clipped and scornful.
If you have ever read ‘Billy Liar’ you will no doubt recall Billy’s hilarious repetition of his undertaker boss Shadrack’s name, beginning with ‘Shadrack, Shaadrack, Shaaadrack and eventually ending with the climactic ‘Shadder, Shadder, Shadders!!’
This scene from ‘Billy Liar’, ironically set in the firm’s toilet, more than adequately conveys the rhetorical skills of my ‘good supporter’ admirer, who presumably was dedicated to helping Rangers attain success whatever the level and whoever the player. Of course, ‘shit sticks’ and, as a result, I do not really believe he was a role model ‘good’ supporter.
But when mulling over the qualities of ‘good supporters’, it is crucial to be wary of stereotyping, and perhaps, more significantly, collective stereotyping. How many times do I hear footballers using adjectives for adverbs but to state categoric that all footballers omit the ‘ly’ would be foolish? Similar –sorry – similarly, not all Newcastle fans are fat, take their shirts off, and cheer throw-ins! Not all Chelsea fans are fat, bald-headed, aggressive men prone to some racist chanting. Not all Birmingham and Leeds supporters are trouble-making thugs, and there are, I am sure, some Millwall fans who are actually quite well liked.
Of course, stereotypes often do reflect both positive and negative truths but we must not allow prejudice or unthinking classification to influence our thoughts about what constitutes a ‘good supporter’.
I am mindful the recent six goal rout– sorry ‘win’ – by Arsenal against Blackpool at the Emirates. A gentleman to the right of me, high up in what is now called the North Bank, opined that Blackpool were excellent supporters. There they were, their team six nil down, being completely outplayed with five minutes left, and, yet, they, the supporters that is, were still singing their hearts out! Bless them! I hope they enjoyed their day out!
I am certain, however, that perversely, their collective enthusiastic support for their outclassed team will have only served to have exacerbated the emotional guilt and rampant soul searching almost already certainly felt by the Blackpool players, given the nature of the mismatch and the number of goals conceded, to a degree which far exceeds the confusion I experienced at the derogatory ‘shitbag’ tossed in my direction all those years before.
How would I have felt if the hundred or so QPR faithful had risen as one at the sight of my feeble effort, punched the air, exhorted my name fanatically to the West London skies, and queued for my autograph late after the game? What on earth would I have said to them? I shudder to think. No, my fellow gooner in the North Bank, you were what I term ‘fangoed’ – all that bright orange affected your judgment about the present and the future. Like Gary Lineker et al, he no doubt believes that a vacated seat at three nil reflects a poor supporter.
I admit the Blackpool fans were impressively noisy, given that they did not have much to shout about and, comparatively speaking, there were not that many of them within the sixty thousand strong crowd. Perhaps, noise generation is the principal key to identifying ‘good supporters’? The decibel quotient pro rata is easily measured and calculated and could be recorded in fans’ league tables.
Where fans are level in decibels and numbers based on a handicap system similar to that found in golf, the rank order could be determined by such factors as ‘variety of songs’, ‘witty chants’ and ‘sentimental value-added’. Such criteria – especially ‘sentimentality’ – may well rid our grounds of crude ditties such as ‘who’s the wanker in the black/green etc?’ and encourage a new football anthology of ‘You’ll never walk alone’ anthems.
An ambitious development of this would be the introduction of an expert panel of X factor type judges which could analyse and vote on the singing of each club’s fans by focusing on tone, unison, meaningful lyrics and general singing quality. Imagine a final featuring Man City’s ‘Blue Moon’ and Millwall’s ‘No one likes us’! Breathtaking!
The spin-offs are mouth watering. The Welsh believing that they would win more FA cups; an improved rendition of ‘Abide with me’ at the cup final; operatic singing of the National Anthem at Wembley finals; and increased respect at Wembley with England supporters not booing foreign anthems and England players, especially John Terry, actually singing rather than miming ‘God Save the Queen’. Fabio Capello and Stuart Pearce could set the example for supporters and players alike by learning the language and actually singing the anthem in English.
The above flight of fancy takes me no nearer, I fear, to what defines ‘good’ football supporters! Fans, by their very nature, are self-delusional and extremely opinionated. I don’t know this (although I’m sure I’m right) but I suppose they always have been and always will be. But, once more, I have to be wary of stereotyping.
It seems to me that one stereotypical ideal of the ‘good’ supporter arises from the working-class origins of the game – a sort of cross between Charlie George, Wayne Rooney and Alf Tupper. At the other end of the spectrum, both football and class, we find the stereotypical ideal of the officer and the gentleman – a cross between Bertie Mee, Alf Ramsey and ‘the can’t think of his name England’ supporter who always dressed in St. George colours and a stupid big hat, and could be found at all major international sporting events 40 years ago, symbolising the Corinthian spirit of the true football supporter.
I suspect that most fans fall somewhere between the two extremes, and leaving aside the ‘risk supporters’ or hooligans, each club has a majority of ‘good’ fans however we define them. For me, though the answer can only be discovered through anecdote.
I begin the ending of my topic with the Arsenal Bolton game last season. Arsenal needed to win to head the table albeit temporarily. We gooners were shocked when Arsenal went one nil down early in the game and mortified when it became two a few minutes later. The disappointment was palpable; you could almost taste it as you surveyed the stricken faces around you to mix metaphors.
Then, suddenly, from behind me there arose out of the angry, hurt, silence one of the strangest sounds I have ever heard at a football match, or, indeed, anywhere. I can only surmise that the strangulated, succession of disgusting images and obscenities was the issue of internal warfare of gargantuan proportions. The gooner’s ejaculations were so shocking that, in spite of our upset at the score, we lesser gooners started to laugh out loud.
I mention the episode because it identifies the true strength of feeling to which the passionate fan – if that is not tautological – is subjected to, and his helplessness in the face of it. I am certain that ostensibly, at least, given the evidence of their ‘always look on the bright side of life’ chorus, the Blackpool fans did not experience this. It could be argued, I admit, that strength of feeling is inversely proportionate to expectation, and that because not even the most optimistic Blackpool fan really believed that they would win, the resulting emotion in defeat was less disappointing, hence the singing.
I cannot accept this and this is why. In the early 1980s, I took my then young son, who was miraculously born loving Arsenal, to see Wealdstone v Boston United in a mid week Gola league (conference) match. Wealdstone had defeated Boston in the Gola cup final at Wembley the previous season, and I suggested that we take my stepfather, a Wealdstone and Bury supporter, who lived in Harrow, to the ever-missed Lower Mead ground at the back of the Dominion Cinema.
The crowd was quite reasonable although the weather was cold and typical of late November. The match was remarkable; not because Wealdstone won 8-0, but because they scored a hat-trick of penalties – something I have only witnessed the once. At the end of the game as the crowd began to disperse and the Boston players trudged shamefully towards the stand and the comforting bosom of the dressing room, a single Boston fan, possibly the only one at the match, or, certainly still inside the ground, lent across the advertising hoardings and berated the Boston players with the following tirade, reminiscent of Basil Fawlty’s attack on his broken down Mini:
‘You bastards, you fucking useless bastards. It took me six fucking hours to drive down here. I nearly crashed twice because of the snow. I took a day off work and lost a day’s wages to come and watch you load of shite and you can’t even make the effort to fight back. You make me sick. Look at you. Going for a nice shower! What about me? You make me sick. I’ve now got to drive back up the motorway and be up for work at 6 in the morning. Well, that’s it. No more, I’m finished. I’ve had enough. That’s it.’
His voice tailed off and he sunk back, as we, the Wealdstone fans, and he, stood in silence, while some of the Boston players had actually stopped walking. All of a sudden, the Boston fan leapt up to the hoarding again and screamed: ‘And I’d fucking well better see an improvement at Telford on Saturday!’
The Wealdstone fans applauded.
Passion; love; sacrifice; prejudice; anger; faith; amnesia; loyalty; hope; and the greatest of them all; forgiveness.
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