Chris McGrath, in yesterday's report of the Arsenal v Wigan game, claims that the modern football fan is a "symbol of decadence". Good heavens. Really?
He made this assertion because poor Emmanuel Eboué was subject to an unsavoury broadside of boos on his departure from the pitch, a substitution made by Arsène Wenger for the good of Eboué's mental health. Prior to the extending of the managerial hook, the player had become the focus of a rising tide of disenchantment that was building to, if you'll forgive the phrase, fever pitch.
I was there. I was not booing because I don't do booing. But I was tearing out what little hair I have left. I was turning around and making gaping faces at the row behind – only to find when I did so that the row behind were turning round to do the same thing to the row behind them. In the end, as Eboué tackled Kolo Touré on the halfway line and sent an inch-perfect pass into the path of an advancing Wigan forward, I was reduced to mute, gasping disbelief.
I was not at Highbury in the Eighties to witness poor Gus Caesar's most celebrated displays of ineptitude, but Eboué's performance must have been right down there with them. Nevertheless, I do think that Eboué deserves sympathy. Something came badly unglued in his nervous system, to the point where the only thing he was capable of doing with the ball was the worst thing in the circumstances. It was a terrible, wounding spectacle for all concerned. No one was booing around where I sit. That's because they were too busy shouting their heads off.
Woundedness is part of the football experience. Wounded- ness is in the nature of football crowds. It's what people go to football for, to let wounds breathe in an environment where the restraints are loosened sufficiently to allow the free expression of verbal dissent within certain parameters.
It's even something Wenger himself acknowledges. "We have to focus on the quality of our performance," he said, "and accept the verdict of the crowd." This is the same crowd that will rage in support of fierce effort on the pitch; that will, not infrequently, urge his team on when they fall behind; that does indeed fork out truly vast sums of money for the privilege of doing so, in the knowledge that the people they are paying to watch are earning more in a week than the huge majority of spectators do in a year.
But the money is not the main issue here. The main issue is the limit of what can and cannot be expressed in a football ground. Speaking from my own experience, I have heard some truly vile things expressed at football; things made all the more vile because they were the result of considered, fomented prejudice: a form of predigested effluent that really does sully humanity in the way McGrath suggests.
What happened on Saturday was not like that. The booing wasn't very nice, I agree, but it was at least a spontaneous reaction to events unfolding in a rapidly moving narrative; a narrative that was being made worse with every passing minute, and by every misplaced pass, by the player at its centre. A player with form.
Eboué has been diving and leaving his studs in and not going at it hard enough and making dilatory passes for several years now and has warranted his status as the Gooners' pantomime villain. No Arsenal fan wants him to be like that; we all want him to be great and to appear to be trying hard. And I'm sure he's a really nice guy. But on Saturday, Eboué's sideshow reached a theatrical climax and the pantomime villain fell into the jaws of the crocodile, which is never a pretty sight.
Poor guy. I wish him well. I just don't really wish to see him playing for Arsenal, and I reserve my right to say so.