Beaten up in the 70s and abused in the 20s: This is football, apparently

John Nicholson
John Nicholson abuse
John Nicholson abuse

As we digest the Manchester United v Arsenal game, an important aspect of the critique will be abusive. Abusive of managers, players, opposition fans, people who say something you don’t agree with, especially anyone writing about the game. You can see examples in the below-the-line comments.

It’s endless, this snarking. What does anyone get out of it? And it’s incredibly dispiriting that it’s seen as all part of the territory and you just have to tolerate the thoughtless nastiness and more than that, you are weak if you can’t handle it.

But it impacts the whole industry. Pieces have definitely not been written because of the predictable negativity of the response. Who needs it? It can ruin your day, your week; it can send you into a spiral of loathing and depression. You can say, don’t take it seriously but how many times do you want to be called a c**t today? Does your job mean you are a human pinata? My plea is not for silence but for politeness. Is that hopelessly naive?

Have you ever wondered why people care that someone they don’t know has an opinion about a football club or a player that they support, with which they disagree? Why? It’s not like politics, for example, where what people say and do can affect your life quite directly. In football it’s usually not important, but it is ever-present.

I’ve never understood this. When I was a kid, it may surprise you that plenty of local Teesside kids supported Manchester United and Liverpool. And they’d get into often quite violent fights with Middlesbrough-supporting boys. They were the 1970s equivalent of social media. Abusing each other over nothing. Pointless grandstanding. No one ever won. Though both sides probably think they did. So it’s not a new thing.

But what is it that drives such confrontation? Admittedly, most of our time back then was taken up with avoiding getting our head kicked in by a few bullies anyway. It was a way of life.

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It’s remarkable when considering the parallels with our witless confrontation on social media how things have not changed at all. Then as now, most people saw these fights as pointless and for stupid, narrow people. But those that didn’t, absolutely lived for them, suggesting they were essential for their self-worth, a self-worth that everyone who wasn’t interested already had and didn’t need ‘success’ in fights to feel valuable and worthwhile.

It seems likely that those social media trolls are just the same as they howl indignantly at some perceived sleight or ignorance and casually insult perfectly decent writers who, like you, are just trying to get through the day.

I know all the abuse puts a lot of people off football, civilians find it shocking and pathetic and it certainly gets the game a bad name. And rightly so. Imagine how much better life would be without it? Maybe football offers something to some people that they can’t get anywhere else that other people don’t need. It’s only ever a minority and they gather in groups, as anyone who has seen a pile-on can testify.

On the few occasions I have been the subject of such a thing, what you must not do is feed the pseudo anger because it will never surrender to logic or decency no matter how simple and straightforward and the abuse will quickly turn from performative to serious. All you can do is do nothing and wait for it to pass.

You may have surprisingly and accidentally poked the bear with a view you may not think controversial, but no matter, it can and will be taken out of context and topped off with relentless poorly judged ad hominem attacks, which will paint you as stupid and deliberately confrontational. All this is your fault, not theirs. Even though it is theirs. Obviously.

Because the whole concept has no basis in anything logical or thoughtful, you can’t defeat it with argument any more than you could argue with a Boro Boot Boy. I’ve seen abuse directed at great and not-so-great writers equally. It makes no difference. It’s totally indiscriminate. I’ve seen a Jane Austen book given one star and dismissed as ‘ feminist crap’, Dickens as ‘bleeding heart liberal virtue signalling’.

I suspect that people vastly overrate the importance of their own view. In a review culture we have suggested that your view is important. Actually, it’s not more important than anyone else’s view. Ironically, in this culture which says you matter, in truth you’ve never mattered less.

One of my novels was given one star by the buyer with the comment that they thought it was true-life crime but it was a novel. Well done. Now, that is hardly my fault is it? It was a delusion of their own making but rather than take the blame for the mistake, they laid it off on me and I was judged by someone as though it is my fault they made an error. So anything is possible. The stupid are everywhere.

You can say anything at all about the Boro, I don’t care and I’ll not spend a moment fighting about it. And I would be fairly sure that you feel exactly the same about your club, unless you support a top Premier League team and even then. All we can do is leave the baying mob to it. They seem a self-satisfied absolutely alien race, often devoid or deficient in empathy. They will probably always be with us, filling too much of our life with their noise, because they always have been. And the morning after a big game is one of the most egregious periods in any season.