The fact that a significant number of fans left Anfield early, after going behind to a second Crystal Palace goal leaving their new manager feeling “alone” was – on the surface – very puzzling, even shocking.
I’ve only left a match early once and that was earlier this year. A freezing cold Wednesday night game between Hibernian and Livingston was petering out to a rather tedious 1-0 win for Hibs. A frost was settling over Easter Road and me and Andy hadn’t had enough drink to insulate ourselves against a bitter Midlothian night. So we left with two minutes on the clock to get a head start on an hour or two of solid drinking, and in doing so we missed two goals – an equaliser and a Hibs winner. Never again. I should have realised by now that just when you think football is predictable, it goes and does something out of the ordinary.
In my defence, leaving when your team is winning a dull game against poor opposition is one thing, but leaving when there is at least eight, probably 10 or 11 minutes to go and you only need one goal to get a draw, is another altogether. In fact, when you’re a goal down and have nothing to lose in attacking for the last few minutes, that is surely the best bit of the game. That’s the essence of football, right there, isn’t it? It could be really exciting. Did those leaving think it was a movie and they had guessed the plot so there was simply no point in watching it play out?
All the more shocking that it should happen at Anfield too, once a citadel of culturally bonded unity, once a fierce place of noise and passion, whose fans would not leave when their side needed them, because it would feel like a desertion of sorts, an abdication of duty. Those of us who are old enough to remember what Anfield used to be like, find the news of early leavers when the team was in need the of collective support, almost unbelievable. What happened?
Well, what happened is that in the last 20 years, top-flight football has become an arm of the entertainment industry and has sold itself as such. It is to be watched while eating pizza and wearing a replica shirt covered in sponsorship logos. You are a revenue stream, an advertising hoarding and not a fan, no, you are customers, customers who are, by and large, encouraged to spend money, sit down and shut up. It is ingrained into our culture now.
Now we sit quietly and wait to be entertained and if we don’t get entertained, as a customer we feel perfectly within our rights to leave any time we want. We bought it, it’s ours to do with what we will. The customer is king and queen, right? Our whole economy and consequently, our whole culture, our whole society, is based on that lore. Why would football be immune from that?
So with that in mind, when your team lets in a goal with a few minutes to go, it seems likely they won’t win and as a good consumer, you’re really only interested in winning (because in a you-are-what-you-buy culture, who wants to buy inferior goods? It makes you look bad) you might as well get up and move on to the next purchase, the next bauble or indulgence to distract you from your own mortality.
There is no moral high ground here. None of us are insulated against this impulse. We all feel it at some point. We all feel like exerting our consumer rights at a football game from time to time. So if you look at those heading for the exits in astonishment, it’s worth remembering that the whole impulse of our economic culture has been to make us islands of consumption, not supportive communities. And in that context, it’s easier to see why you might leave when you’re 2-1 down with a few minutes to go.
And it’s also worth realising that some people just don’t care that much about the football they’ve paid to see. They’re there for whatever reasons, but it’s not important to them who wins, or even what happens really. It’s just a consumer purchase for today, not part of a culture or history. Leaving on 82 minutes when you’re 2-1 down is no different from leaving half of your dessert uneaten in a restaurant because it’s not sweet enough.
However, it doesn’t have to be like this and perhaps Jurgen Klopp’s comments after the game can inspire us all to be more altruistic, supportive fans in all circumstances and less insular football consumers, not least because it might be much more enjoyable. After all, football, like life itself, offers no refunds, so you’ve really just got to make the best of it.