Image courtesy of @LFC_Imagery
Recently there has been discussion about atmosphere in stadiums and fans vocal support. We have had fans booing at grounds and also people questioning pressure put on players by supporters desperate for success. West Ham manager, Sam Allardyce, made reference to the booing of some sections of the home crowd after their recent win over Hull City when there had been boos heard around Upton Park despite the team leading 1-0 at half time. West Ham vice-Chairman Karren Brady stood by her manager’s frustration by stating “There is no way I can accept my team being booed.” She went onto add, “Big Sam is so upset he complains that he has never heard a winning team booed.”
Others have joined the debate defending a spectator’s right to voice their displeasure. On twitter long-time abuse-provocateur, Danny Baker, posted “So Allardyce says fans mustn’t boo. Why do they ALWAYS forget fans are the only ones who have paid to get in. Every else [sic] is BEING PAID.”
Now personally I agree you have the right to voice your dissatisfaction and it is every fan’s right to comment on the performance of the team, the manager or indeed the club. But, my problem with this sort of ‘support’ is that it rarely achieves what the instigators desire.
My view on the first point is that there are various ways to support your players and club and it is one of the easiest things in the world to be negative, but does it ever really motivate a player or even a team? There are examples of players managing to turn around a rough crowd, but generally it can be very hard to keep yourself motivated if you know you’re going to receive abuse from your own fans. When you consider the bubble most players live in which consists purely on engineering to make their lives simple, uncomplicated and constantly positive, it must be difficult for them to deal with.
Having said that, becoming a top professional footballer is such a cut-throat business where a man must be single-minded enough to sacrifice many of the temptations us mere mortals can succumb to, that you cannot imagine players being able to reach the top if they have slightly delicate skins. These days many managers and coaches will kneel at the altar of man-management and it would seem the days of shouting and badgering players, a la Brian Clough, John Sitton or Neil Warnock, are over. In fact even Martin Allen worships at the font of personal development, believing there’s more to management than just being mad.
Let me illustrate this point with a simple reference. Cast your minds back to May 2005 and Istanbul. Liverpool go in at half-time 0-3 down to AC Milan in the Champions League Final. The Italians put in one of the finest 45 minute displays I have witnessed from any side and I had to admit we were well beaten at that stage. But in the ground what did the fans do? Did they boo? Did they deride, sneer, whistle or even walk out? No, they sang their hearts out. The Italians themselves made mention of the fact they couldn’t understand how those fans could be singing for their side when they had been so utterly outplayed in the first half. As Jamie Carragher wrote in his autobiography
Rafa Benitez also said “Listen to them, we’re 0-3 down and they’re singing higher than ever, do it for them. Our coach Alex Miller’s final instructions at half-time were for us to “score a goal for those fans”, and as the players emerged from the tunnel they could hear the noise being generated from the fans and it certainly had a hand in galvanising the miracle which transpired.
Picking holes in someone or their performance is a very easy thing to do and these days fans seem to prefer to ring up radio stations or join in forums or just tweet, simply to moan. The hardest thing in life is looking for the good in any situation. Funnily enough it is something many religions teach, despite the press they get for being responsible for starting wars or encouraging bigotry, and maybe the demise of religion in this country has had an effect on this. Often the simplest thing is to point out what is wrong rather than how to put it right.
Of course, booing your team is not a new occurrence but booing a side when they’re leading at half-time in a ‘must-win’ game probably is. Is it a sign of nerves on behalf of the fans? Or is it simply a natural reaction to the frustration of seeing your side not play in the way you would like them to? How do you think those West Ham players would’ve felt if they had received a standing ovation after going in at the break 1-0 at home to Hull? Maybe they would’ve felt the crowd was on their side, there was nothing going to stop them now and perhaps they could put in a performance for the fans in the second half. Similarly, how would the Hull City players have felt if they realised the crowd was in full cry and determined to will the home side on?
Don’t get me wrong, I fully support someone’s right to protest and when you’ve paid a lot of money to get in surely you have the right to demonstrate how disappointed you are with what you have been watching? But then that is very easy to do when you’re in the safety of a crowd and, as I mentioned earlier, the easiest reaction is to complain and be negative. It takes a lot to look for the good. There are ways of voicing dissent and any amount of outlets which will happily channel it for you. I just feel there are better ways of doing it rather than when your team is 1-0 up against a side they should beat and the 3pts you might gain, should ensure safety for another season. I am sure there are many fans up and down the country who would swap places with West Ham fans at this stage of the season.
Perhaps this brings in the question of who should get who going first? Is it the crowd’s responsibility to create an atmosphere to galvanise the team or is it the players’ who need to play well enough to bring the crowd to life? A football match is a play in a theatre or a film in a cinema, where you sit and wait to be entertained. A football match has more in common with a rock concert, where the crowd turns up expecting to be entertained and reacts accordingly joining in with whatever is played out on stage.
Maybe this is all synonymous with the way many supporters believe today’s footballer is separated from them. The pampered ponce who gets to drive off in his top of the range Mercedes and have all the money, women and accolades he wants, no matter how he plays. A guy who has clearly just turned up today to do as little as possible so he can continue to earn his vast wage and has set out with the intention of losing, or worse still, just not even trying. But is that the truth? Do players deliberately set out to go through the motions? Or is it simply how us mere mortals who have never made it past playing in the park on a Sunday morning, think we would approach some games? But then maybe the reason we have never progressed is due to the voice in our head being far less positive than the one in the head of a player who finally makes the grade.
Some players seem to positively quiver with the excitement of drawing a big club in a cup competition, whereas some fans would prefer an easier tie just to prolong the journey a little further.
Not too long ago it was offered that some players dreaded being selected to play for England as there was so much pressure and negative vibe from the media and supporters, that the whole experience of going away on international duty was a thoroughly unpleasant one. Whether that’s still the case is up for debate, but young players still talk of the honour of playing for one’s country that you could be forgiven for forgetting they were young supporters once who dreamed the dreams we all have.
My second point in this article relates to the suggestion that, although the support at Anfield for Liverpool recently has been phenomenal, it could in fact put too much pressure on a young side unprepared for the heady heights of Premier League Champions. Richard Beech in The Mirror made the point, “passionate support could turn into pressure for young players” but this underestimates what counts for ‘support’ in Liverpool and also the calming effect Brendan Rodgers is having on this team.
Both Glenn Hoddle and Tim Sherwood made an attempt to highlight this before the Liverpool v Tottenham game on Sunday. Unfortunately for them it backfired severely and it was the Tottenham players who seemed overwhelmed with the home side’s vociferous support, going on to fluff their lines. You see the support at Anfield and Liverpool FC is different from many other clubs. I don’t say it’s different than all other clubs as many clubs have fans passionate about their team and desperate to get behind them. It was pointed out to me a while back by a fan of another club who said “the problem with Liverpool fans is they always over-estimate a player’s ability”. Now that in itself is an interesting observation, seen by the accuser as a negative and yet seen by me, and I would think many Liverpool fans, as a major plus. This club has had plenty of players down the years who made the best of their abilities. Emlyn Hughes, Kevin Keegan, Joey Jones, Alan Kennedy, Jamie Carragher, Craig Johnston and Steve Nicol are all players who weren’t particularly as gifted as some but worked incredibly hard on making the most of what they had. Now we can add to that the name of Jon Flanagan.
Flanagan has been a revelation for me this season. It was clear from the Channel Four documentary “Being Liverpool” that Rodgers identified him as someone with talent, but then he did the same with JonJo Shelvey and that didn’t really work out. In November when Liverpool travelled to The Emirates, Rodgers surprised many when he plumped for Flanagan as replacement for Glenn Johnson at right-back. Now contrary to some of the points I have made earlier, twitter was alive with negative comments about the kid’s ability, suggesting he was more Traore than triumph and he shouldn’t be anywhere near the squad. ‘Flanno’ had a decent game but has since gone on to be one of the most improved players at the club. On Sunday he epitomised how he has blossomed into his role with a ‘Cruyff turn’ on the left before feeding Coutinho who went onto score the third goal. Flanagan is everything which is good about positive passionate support and how it can galvanise a player. After initially receiving abuse on social media, in the ground he received support and for a local-boy-made-good this has transcended into performances which make him difficult to leave out.
When players give their all at Anfield the crowd loves them, and they can go onto love them forever. Being a smaller city than London, for example, can have the effect of a player never forgetting who is playing for. As Bill Shankly famously told the fans “these players play for you”, and he never let them forget it and countless managers have gone onto understand that bond and tap into it. Rodgers is no different.
Now let’s not get too carried away as there were one or two dissenting voices during Kenny Dalglish’s second spell in charge, and you could make the point the home form wasn’t great during this time with too many drawn games to be able to challenge for the title. I believe everyone was so desperate to return to the glory days and with Kenny coming back there was a belief it would just happen automatically. But herein lies the problem. Liverpool would start very well at Anfield but if we didn’t score in the first 15 minutes the crowd began to get nervous. What if what you wanted so desperately didn’t happen? This then transferred to the players and the performances became anxious. With Brendan Rodgers coming in there was a feeling of needing to build something from the beginning and that this would take time. Add to that his calm demeanour and this has given the fans the ability to sit back and enjoy the play and hope for the best rather than just to expect it. Now, of course, we expect the best from the players because they are putting in the performances.
In addition, Rodgers has gone for players with the right attitude, believing his coaching methods can improve their play. One or two have found themselves out on loan or even out of the club if they have shown any deficiency in their determination.
When Liverpool fans offer passionate support they are not saying “you better put in a performance or else you’re letting me and everyone else down”. They are saying “we believe in you and we’d give anything to be in your position, but you have been given the faith to play for us and we believe you can do it”.
It is a subtle difference but it makes all the difference. Misunderstanding that just makes us more determined, and I appreciate I am completely biased in this but then that is one of the reason’s I support this club rather than any other, but being supported by Liverpool fans is just a completely different experience than at many other clubs. If you don’t believe me go and ask Xabi Alonso, John-Arne Riise, Sami Hyypia, Didi Hammann. Players who started their careers at other clubs and didn’t necessarily understand the Liverpool fans before they came, then they move onto other clubs but still hold a real affinity with the club and the city and will often declare this is a place like no other.
At the moment everyone is just enjoying the ride which many of us weren’t expecting until next season at least. But if you are concerned passionate support may have a negative effect on the players, just remember these players are playing every day under the constant reminder of what has gone before them at Liverpool. They are already well aware of the expectations.