Are you a rowdy fan or a quiet one? Do you sing or just stick to applause when appropriate?
Is there an unwritten, unspoken contract between a football club, its team and its supporters which says that you must support your team vocally? When we go to a game, are we required to be noisy, to sing songs and shout encouragement? Is being quiet tantamount to being unsupportive of your team? In fact, is any specific sort of behaviour required of us?
The crowd are often called the 12th man (are they the 12th woman in female football?) so do we have an obligation to create that most metaphysical of things – ‘an atmosphere’? We’ve all stood or sat beside people who are largely silent throughout. Even when a goal goes in, they might just clap and leave it at that. Others are going ballistic for an hour and a half. Is there a right or wrong way?
I ask because Jose Mourinho’s comment about the Old Trafford match-day atmosphere seemed critical of Manchester United fans.
“Old Trafford is a quiet stadium. It is not Portsmouth. I remember Portsmouth when I came to the Premier League. It is such a small stadium, but it has an incredible atmosphere. Here the atmosphere is a bit quiet. It is not very, very enthusiastic, but the players like to play at home.”
The message is clearly that quieter is worse. Indeed, that would be the common view throughout football. Good fans are noisy fans, the quiet ones are the contemptible prawn sarnie mob or tourists who aren’t really fans at all.
There is a lot of misplaced nostalgia about the atmosphere at games back in the day (whenever you happen to think was the golden era). Grounds were not always a temple to raucous support and sometimes the so-called atmosphere came from a bad place: hooliganism. When you were in a crowd and sensed there was going to be trouble, it created tension and your emotions or nerves were easily triggered. You shouted and yelled to release that tension. This sometimes explained why looking back, it seemed like crowds made a better atmosphere than today, where everyone is more comfortable and more relaxed, but it some ways it was a far worse experience.
It is easy to default to the idea that a noisy crowd is a good crowd. But is it true? How do we measure it? Crystal Palace probably have the loudest crowd in the Premier League but it didn’t help them earlier this season. The fans were as noisy when the team was poor as they are now when playing better. That rather suggests the atmosphere is irrelevant and the quality of players and managerial aptitude is almost everything to do with results, doesn’t it? In which case, a quiet atmosphere is no better or worse than noisy one. So why have a go at the fans for being quiet?
Old Trafford has often been accused of being an atmosphere vacuum but they’ve still won plenty of trophies over the years, regardless. Would they have won even more if the fans has been more vocal? In the 1970 and 1980s, Old Trafford was far more raucous than it is today, but they were much less successful. Would Arsenal be more successful if the Emirates was more shouty? Almost certainly not. It’s not lack of support that’s their problem. Similarly, Newcastle United have a huge support of bellowing Geordies but it doesn’t help if your players are just not good enough.
Indeed, I do sometimes wonder if a raucous home support actually intimidates some players. We’ve all heard noisy crowds turning on their own players.
Quieter fans shouldn’t be criticised by managers or players. Decibels emitted are not an accurate measure of your commitment or even depth of feeling. And it isn’t surprising that in general we are less vocal than we once were, because we live in a world where we’re more commonly passive receivers of entertainment.
We sit motionless and slack-jawed, staring at screens, doing little more than clicking a button, our minds in neutral, so much so that a study from the Northern California Institute for Research and Education in San Francisco found that people who watch four hours or more of television per day scored significantly lower marks on tests measuring cognitive performance in middle age. Passive, sedentary lifestyles are now thought to increase the risk of dementia.
So given this widespread condition in everyday life, it’s no surprise that we might do likewise inside a football ground, just waiting to be entertained rather than being proactive in trying to encourage the entertainment.
This is also possibly exacerbated by the extortionate cost of tickets. Remember, in the 1970s top-flight tickets were, when calculated to account for inflation, the equivalent of about £5, not £20 or £30 or £50. As such, perhaps subconsciously, we all feel that we’ve already done our bit by shelling out so much dough, so you better bloody well entertain us. We don’t want to have to do more work. Make the tickets a fiver and maybe we’ll all throw more of ourselves into supporting you. Why does it all have to be down to us? You’re the ones getting the silly money, so you do the work.
Also, we live in a world where the primacy of the individual is vaunted over the cult of the collective so completely that it is an axiomatic part of all our cultural DNA. For over 30 years we’ve been politically encouraged to believe we’re all an island unto ourselves, and with that in mind it is perhaps unsurprising that many feel singing along with everyone else is a subconscious surrender of your own individuality to the lowest common denominator of the grubby collective.
We need to also bear in mind that maybe we’re just more inhibited in public than we once were, rightly more concerned at offending someone, and also that sometimes the noisiest fans in a ground are the most stupid, bellowing insult and idiocy. We certainly don’t want to be the guy – and there’s always one – who is at the front of the stand and turns, arms out wide, to the rest of the fans and instructs us to have more passion, as though he is the keeper of the club’s holy flame.
Over the years, there have been some chants that are just cringe-inducing and that’s without even touching on some of the illegal hate-filled ones. I’ve never seen the attraction of any of that and I know I’m not alone. In fact, I’ve never gone to a game feeling the urge or need to sing, though I have cheered and yelled as much as anyone, in moments of high excitement or disappointment.
If a manager or a player isn’t happy with the atmosphere in a ground, it is their responsibility to do something about it. Excited crowds are innately noisy crowds, as the game at Anfield against Spurs well proved. Bored crowds are the quietest crowds. So, if Old Trafford is not very “enthusiastic”, Mourinho might want to consider why that is and inspire his players to do something about it, instead of laying the blame off on the fans themselves. We’ve already made such people rich beyond the dreams of Croesus, so shut up, get on with being any good and leave us in peace.
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