James Lawton: Lowe should listen to the fans

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The Independent Football

An old football man once speculated on the reaction of a motor mechanic if he was suddenly confronted by a group of bank clerks, plumbers, even brain surgeons, peering down into his greasy pit and advising him on the finer points of his job. "There is a very good chance he would tell them, maybe in different words, to shove off," said the gnarled pro.

This certainly seems to be the stance of the Southampton chairman, Rupert Lowe, in the face of the mass protest of supporters at the possibility that he might rehire Glenn Hoddle. However, we should be very clear that he takes his position without the underpinning of that professional belief that buying a ticket for a football match doesn't automatically impart expert knowledge.

What the Southampton fans are asserting, for once at least, is not their technical grasp of football. It is their understanding of what is decent in life, and in this their judgement is surely impeccable.

A return by Hoddle to the St Mary's Stadium would be a shameless trampling of the idea of loyalty. Heaven knows, the concept is fragile enough in these days of flagrant opportunism by both players and clubs, but the Saints fans are saying that the proposal for Hoddle to come back to them, so soon after he walked out just 14 months into the contract that brought him back from a self-imposed wilderness, is simply too much to stomach.

Who can question their right to say that? Behind the fan reaction is something utterly fundamental to the relationship of a club and its supporters. This is a sense of unity, of a common dream, and Lowe's belief that such a spirit can be engendered by a manager who has made self-interest such an overwhelming motif of his career is quite bewildering. Or at least it would be if the legitimate rights of supporters had not been so relentlessly eroded in recent years of grab-all plc football. These rights do not include any executive power or any influence beyond that which fans exert by yelling at squirming directors on match days. But, as a body, they are unquestionably entitled to a basic respect. They deserve to be recognised as the people who maintain the existence of the club.

By even considering the re-appointment of Hoddle, Lowe is delivering an appalling insult to the fans - and also suggesting strongly that deep down, and in spite of some, at times, impressive stewardship of an organisation which was so grossly misdirected in the past, his understanding of the importance of the club's partnership with its supporters is deeply flawed.

Now his appointment yesterday of reserve team coach Steve Wigley as Gordon Strachan's replacement until the end of the season provides a little time for some mature reflection. It should centre on the need for trust between the club and those who give it life.

Much more complicated, no doubt, is any analysis of the noises being made by fans at Old Trafford. Naturally, there is vast support and affection for Sir Alex Ferguson, but before his most impassioned supporters march on the Cheltenham Festival to harass his bitter foes, John Magnier and JP McManus, they should take a closer look at their position. If they do that clear-headedly enough, they may see that it is more than a little absurd.

Whatever their motivation, Magnier and McManus, as chief shareholders, are asking questions that are relevant to the running of a club which will never be so successful that it can afford to ignore certain basic operating principles. The United action groups need to ask themselves what it is they are protesting? Surely it cannot be the right of the Irishmen to ask 99 pertinent questions about the governance of a corporation - for that is what United long ago became - in which they have invested so heavily?

Among the fans there is also some rather forlorn misunderstanding of the extent of their power. They talk of making life at Old Trafford impossible for Magnier and McManus, but they do not seem to understand that for such men events there mean little in terms of their own passions.

Ferguson, however legitimately according to his own belief in what truly has happened in the matter of his half ownership of Rock of Gibraltar and the missing stud fees, has picked a battle with ruthless men for whom the legend of Manchester United is plainly less important than the outcome of the Cheltenham Gold Cup or Champion Hurdle. That's the reality behind all the posturing of the inflamed fans. And, to be a little cynical about the fervour, how much strength will the anti-Magnier crusade retain if Fergie is unable to do much about the team's present tailspin. Will support for him go the way of the dwindling authority of his defence? All football precedent suggests it will indeed.

At Southampton, Lowe may be banking on some similar wavering on the terraces when the first rush of protests have been weathered. If Hoddle, whose self-regard appears to know few bounds, is reinstated, if he guts out the initial disdain of the supporters, and then begins to reproduce some of the success he enjoyed in his first brief spell, will the banners melt away in a glow of new optimism? You could put the mortgage on it.

It is the saddest of truths, no doubt, but it is confirmed by all that we have seen in the past. How long did the fans of Celtic and Liverpool mourn the passing of Jock Stein and Bill Shankly? Just as long as it took for the next set of good results. Hoddle, with unsurpassable nerve, pleads for forgiveness, and so what if he suffers a little passing embarrassment? Nothing lasts in football, and as Hoddle has proved so spectacularly, the first casualty is often shame.