Trying is hard, and being an elite-level footballer is even harder, coming as it invariably does from year upon year of just having a really really good try. Maintaining those standards is next to impossible, but there isn’t a single club in the world whose fans don’t demand the absolute pinnacle of effort for every minute of every game.
As any office worker with a tedious office job knows, there is an element of performance involved in keeping up the appearance of effort. Michael Owen has spoken about chasing lost causes from the front during games when he was low on confidence needed to get the fans back on his side, which is instructive of the mentality of both the players and the crowd: playing to the cheap seats with big, unmistakable gestures can be critical in avoiding accusations of complacency.
If you’re 4-0 down away from home with ten minutes to go, the sensible thing is probably just to conserve your energy and live to fight another day; but we don’t settle for that. The greatest crime in football is to meekly surrender, even to what is clearly a lost cause. Instead, we want to see the Charge of the Light Brigade: people valiantly and bravely throwing themselves into a battle they know no longer offers any possibility of victory.
That’s totally understandable. If you’re going to pay money to stand in the freezing cold and cheer on a team of people, you want to at least feel like they respect you enough to put in that effort – or as a very minimum, to acknowledge that they ought to be. Demanding maximum effort from the players is a fan’s entire job, and it should not be any other way. Likewise, if results are not going well, it is the media’s job to discuss why not, and player effort is always the first thing you need to check – after all, it providing the juiciest headlines.
The problem is that our perception of how much effort is being put in is incomplete: we cannot see what happens at training, or at home, or in the gym. We are given a chaotic 90 minute window once or twice a week, in a sport in which even the best teams will inevitably lose occasionally, and where the low-scoring nature of the game means the line between success and failure is finer than in most other invasion sports.
This is why certain fans and media lash out at whatever arbitrary thing about the player’s appearance or lifestyle is most conspicuous to them: their body language, their hairstyle, their romantic life, their fashion choices, their video games, their learning a silly handshake.
Those fans and pundits don’t imagine the player spending an hour on those things after work as a way to unwind and live their actual lives, because on the whole we have little to no conception of what a modern player’s working life actually looks like; so in their mind’s eye it becomes warped into the footballer spending every waking second thinking about anything but football. This sometimes extends as far as a moratorium on the horrendously distracting youth activity known as ‘smiling’, which quite frankly is ruining the game. It’s as though modern players have all got their own agency and personalities and things, the cowards.
The other, more major issue is that our expectations of how far effort can take you are often excessive, as we can demonstrate to ourselves by zooming out from our own clubs momentarily. What percentage of clubs have fans who think their players “just aren’t trying”? Intuitively, it feels like it must be something like 50% or more.
At that point, you have to start wondering whether our collective standards are simply too high, just like how the fact that everyone everywhere has throughout all of time has thought every referee is incompetent actually just belies that we expect far too much from our officials.
There will be times throughout every club’s season when it feels like the players haven’t tried; that is normal, and that is what makes it even more glorious on the rare occasions when a side is able to capture that lightning in a bottle and embark on a successful campaign.
So with all that said, and with all those caveats and concessions made, we can ultimately conclude: Chelsea are seriously bloody phoning it in at the moment, aren’t they?
Steven Chicken is on Twitter