Football: Human rights apply inside the turnstiles

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"PLAYERS SHOULD play, managers should manage and supporters should support the team wearing their shirts."

Are we sure? The words of the Stockport County manager, Andy Kilner - lifted from Tuesday's Manchester Evening News - raise an issue fundamental to one of football's most complex relationships: to what extent is a supporter beholden to his (or her) club?

Two-thirds of Kilner's sentence is indisputably true; players and managers are indeed obliged, by contract, to fulfil their professional roles. But must a customer express approval of the product he is buying? Is he denied the right to complain when that product is sub-standard? Does loyalty have to be blind?

For what it is worth, I sympathise with Kilner. Stockport are a small club who began the decade in the Fourth Division and are thriving in the top half of Division One. It seems churlish to chastise such an over-achieving team.

As Kilner rightly observed in the wake of Saturday's draw with Walsall: "These players have had a fantastic start to the season and it would be nice if they had a little bit of credit. Somebody said it was like a non- league performance which is a scandalous thing to say."

Fair enough. But as he pursued his theme, Kilner began to venture into dubious territory. "Rather than boo, I wish these people would stay away. It's sad that people think they have some divine right to be abusive just because they've paid their pounds 15."

Only partly fair. No one has the right to be abusive (if they do, it's certainly not divine) and a manager is bound to wish the boo-boys weren't there. But pounds 15 does entitle an individual (supportive or otherwise) to attend and does not oblige him to speak up in favour of any particular team. Freedom of speech (within the parameters of decency) doesn't cease to be a human right on the pitch side of a turnstile. In short, supporters do not have to support.

Had the purchase of a ticket at Old Trafford on Tuesday equated to a requirement to make an on-going noise in encouragement of Manchester United then by half-time anything up to 53,745 people were in danger of being sued for breach of contract. These folk - unlike the Stockport rebels - weren't berating their team, but they were hardly supporting either. Merely spectating ...until the rather more rousing events that followed the interval.

There's nothing wrong with that. The unique aura surrounding United is such that many who come to their games are reduced to gaping in awed wonder. Magnificent team and manager. Magnificent ground. But Old Trafford's nickname "The Theatre of Dreams" is apt. In general, its patrons come expecting to watch wonderful entertainment. They don't all have to play a part. Don't be surprised if, in the latest tier of spectator accommodation being built, there are opera glasses attached to the seat in front.

Expectation tends to be the key to the fan-club relationship. The Stockport whingers (as opposed to their grateful, rational fans), spoilt by their club's relatively recent elevation in status, may have grown presumptuously over-expectant. Rather than lifting the atmosphere, the silent thousands at Manchester United expect to be lifted by it.

This week, the Huddersfield Town manager, Steve Bruce (accustomed to 55,000 at Old Trafford) complains that, with his team in prime form and climbing the table, only 12,000 turned up for the visit of Ipswich Town. Perhaps, through no fault of Bruce, a history of false dawns has reduced the expectations of Huddersfield townsfolk to the point of cynical absenteeism. Things have been worse, though. I used to report for local radio from Leeds Road when attendances were less than half that size.

Southampton's supporters were in terrific voice at Wimbledon last Saturday. They've come to expect a struggle and they revel in it. The lucky clubs are the ones whose supporters expect nothing and are grateful for anything. Watford are the current prime example. I went to their 4-0 mauling at Coventry City on Sunday and the fans were brilliant. Generally derided by their hosts and hardly buoyed up by the thorough outclassing of their injury-weakened team, they retained a stubborn, childlike determination to enjoy the afternoon.

Rather than exchanging tit-for-tat sneers with their Coventry neighbours, "the Horns" (as they like to call themselves) simply continued to advertise the profundity of their own support - "3-0 and we're still singing"; then, after Gary McAllister crashed in the penalty "5-4, we're gonna win 5-4"; and, finally having conceded that there was no way back for Watford, "we sing 'cos we love our team".

You do have the right to complain, people of Stockport. But do you love your team?