The Last Defender: The prawn sandwich brigade

Date published: Wednesday 11th January 2017 5:31

I like it when Jose Mourinho is happy, but not too happy. If you’re into the whole ‘football is entertainment’ thing, there is almost nobody better than the Portuguese when things are kind-of-but-not-entirely going his way. He’s not the harmful and tedious arse we saw towards the end of his last spell at Chelsea, and nor is he boringly contented like during his first season back at Chelsea.

It’s hard to think of any resuls that better represents ‘good, but nothing to get carried away with’ than beating Hull City 2-0 in the first leg of the EFL Cup semi-final, and true to form Mourinho provided us journalists with the sweet nectar of quotable copy as he cajoled the United fans ahead of Liverpool’s visit on Sunday.

“I think in the first half the players have to do better, I have to do better, the fans – they also have to do better,” he said. “Maybe I didn’t do my job well, maybe I should have brought more tension to the dynamic to prepare the game. The players have to improve; I have to improve; the fans, I’m sorry, have to improve. We are responsible for fans’ participation in the game. If we play very well, enthusiastically, the fans: they come to the pitch to play with us. We have amazing fans, what I feel is Sunday is a special match for us – special match for the Man United fans.

“So my invitation is don’t come to the theatre, come to play, play with us,” he concluded, sounding for all the world like an annoying eight-year-old trying to entice his older brother to play a round of Monopoly.

There’s nothing new in football: this is simply a variation on Roy Keane’s criticism of the fans in corporate boxes at Old Trafford back in 2000, which if memory serves led to such supporters becoming known derogatorily in the tabloids as the decapod butty posse.

The culture of football is that you go to cheer on your team, no matter what, and if you fail to do so you’re a traitor to the cause and should vacate your seat in favour of someone who is willing to scream and shout. Unlike some of the other curious terrace taboos I’ve discussed previously in this series, decrying fans for being quiet does at least have some rational basis. Home advantage is observed in pretty much every sport; it’s clear that playing in the presence of your own noisy fans can make a difference to the result, as a long-term trend at least.

Unfortunately, there’s little room for objectivity in that culture. Goals aside, the loudest you typically hear a crowd roar is at refereeing decisions and when their side is given a corner. The problem I have is that nearly all the officials’ calls are either right or at least incorrect in an understandable way, and we all know a stats bore (me) who will tell you that corners aren’t really an effective way to score goals. What makes football so compelling is that it is a ridiculously low-scoring sport: almost every game, going in, has the potential to go either way, which creates a thrilling tension and makes scoring a moment of pure joy. But tension isn’t the same as throat-hoarsening excitement.

This isn’t because I’ve been going to matches as a journalist for eight years and have had it trained out of me. Even as a teenager at games, my brother and I would look at each other in bafflement that there was any uproar at all from those around us, including our parents, about decisions the officials had clearly got right. We were both too naturally sceptical to join in with any sincerity.

I’d suggest that the supposed reduction in noise from the stands isn’t so much the result of diminished attention spans or the encroachment of the corporate world into football grounds, though I’m sure they’re factors. Rather, it’s just not in some people’s character to lose themselves in the way the old terrace culture prescribes. If you broaden your church you’ll get a greater variety of personalities amongst the parishioners, and English football has been building apses and chancels at an astonishing rate for the past 25 years.

Mourinho is onto something when he accepts responsibility for the way the fans behave. Theatre audiences react differently depending on the show; Mourinho might finally be realising that Chekhov may win you prizes, but Rocky Horror is a hell of a lot more fun.

Steven Chicken – follow him on Twitter

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