Adrian Chiles: Ritual abuse, how football fans make their teams worse

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The Independent Football

My adulatory piece last week about English cricket's Barmy Army drew a mixed response. Most correspondents praised my praise, but a few contended that the Barmy Army is a bad thing: uncouth, unkempt and, most damningly, "just like a bunch of football fans". How much of an insult that is I cannot say but in one important way the Barmy Army is nothing like a bunch of football supporters: the cricket supporters do what it says on the tin - they support their team.

My adulatory piece last week about English cricket's Barmy Army drew a mixed response. Most correspondents praised my praise, but a few contended that the Barmy Army is a bad thing: uncouth, unkempt and, most damningly, "just like a bunch of football fans". How much of an insult that is I cannot say but in one important way the Barmy Army is nothing like a bunch of football supporters: the cricket supporters do what it says on the tin - they support their team.

I hate to repeat myself but take another look at what Katy Cooke, the Barmy Army's organiser, says about the nature of their support. "The whole idea is that we are pro-team whether we agree with selection or not. We're not selectors, we're not coaches, so whichever XI is chosen to go out there we'll be behind them."

Fielding calls about West Ham on Radio 5 Live's 6-0-6 football phone-in last Sunday, I was reminded of Katy's mission statement when a West Ham fan came on not, as all the others had, to call for Alan Pardew's head but to ask if West Ham supporters were not part of the problem. "Our players don't have a chance. The crowd are on their backs before they've kicked a ball."

I don't know whether West Ham fans are any worse than any other set of fans in this regard but I did see them lose 1-0 at home to West Brom a couple of years ago as Glenn Roeder staggered towards the gallows. It was only September but it felt like midwinter as they slowly and darkly chanted "Roeder, Roeder, sort it out". The air was heavy with menace. But as a West Ham fan said to me this week: "What do you expect from a club whose supporters sing about blowing bubbles which 'fly so high, never reach the sky, then fade and die'?"

Do football teams under-perform because they have miserable fans, or are the fans miserable because their teams are under-performing? It is no easier to work out than that old chestnut about whether long-serving managers are successful because they are long- serving or whether they are long-serving because they are successful.

Either way it would be fascinating to organise West Ham fans to be - to a man, woman and child - totally and utterly positive for the next home League game - I don't think the Cup would be a good test for this one, much better the match against lowly Cardiff a week tomorrow. We could re-programme them mentally by means of one, two or even all of the following methods: financial inducements, psycho-active drugs, hypnosis, blackmail or the threat of violence. It is worth a try, surely.

A few weeks ago I was watching a Liverpool game with Gordon Strachan. Harry Kewell's stock had reached such a low with his "supporters" that whenever the ball was passed to him a gentle groan-cum-shudder hissed around Anfield.

"I remember that noise," Gordon said, "I feel sorry for him. I went through a bad patch at Aberdeen and whenever the ball came to me I heard that noise. It's almost impossible to play when you hear it - your legs sort of seize up. If I was receiving a short pass, that'd be OK, but if it was a longer pass everyone in the ground would be groaning as it came towards me. Impossible.

"The other one was when they were reading the team out: 'No 1, Joe Bloggs.' Hooray. 'No 2, Fred Bloggs.' Hooray. 'No 3, Gordon Strachan.' Boo. You just didn't have a chance. I used to run out next to Willie Miller so that when they cheered for him it might look like they were cheering me."

If slagging off your own players is pointless, slagging off your opponents is no better. I never understand why any of us do this, and we all have. For every shrinking violet who has wilted under fire there are another 10 who will surely play the matches of their lives. If Robbie Keane plays at The Hawthorns today he will get loads of stick because his fourth-last club was Wolves. Get your money on it, folks, he will score. And he will probably do so in the last minute with us leading 1-0. We West Brom fans will be clinging on, panicking, because our players are panicking. But, in fact, it is just as likely that the players will be flapping because 25,000 of us will be flapping.

Graeme le Saux has taken more stick than most for the, er, tenacity of his tackling as well as, tediously, ludicrous stuff about his sexual orientation. He says he has been quite lucky as far as abuse from his own fans is concerned, though "like all players I've had to listen to that collective sigh when you make a bad pass. It's horrible. You just want to say 'look, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it'."

Of abuse from the opposition, he says: "There are players who can't handle any kind of pressure, positive or negative. They just can't deal with being in that environment. To cope with it you just have to get to a point when it actually doesn't matter whether the crowd is being positive or negative, so to me it's just an energy. And you have to use that energy."

I rest my case: we make our players worse and the opposition play better by having a go at them. I asked Gordon why we do it: "God knows. I don't know. You tell me - you're the fan."

It is a bizarre world. Consider this from Le Saux: "I have a friend who swears blind he can stand outside a ground and know how I'm doing. If the opposition fans are singing about whether I take it up the arse or not, I'm having a good game."

So, to be clear on this, if thousands of people are chanting about your alleged preferred mode of sexual intercourse then that means you're having a good day. Who'd be a footballer?

adrian.chiles@btopenworld.com

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