Keane on dodgy ground over prawns

John Carlin in Barcelona says United captain's outburst missed the point
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The Independent Football

Roy Keane reckons Manchester United fans are a bunch of spoilt brats. That was the point the £50,000-a-week working-class hero was trying to make last week when he had a go at the prawn-loving illiterates who turn up at Old Trafford these days. Since he excluded the "hard-core" fans who travel to away matches from his rebuke, one must deduce that he was talking only about a majority of the Old Trafford regulars, not every single one of the 60,000 faithful.

Roy Keane reckons Manchester United fans are a bunch of spoilt brats. That was the point the £50,000-a-week working-class hero was trying to make last week when he had a go at the prawn-loving illiterates who turn up at Old Trafford these days. Since he excluded the "hard-core" fans who travel to away matches from his rebuke, one must deduce that he was talking only about a majority of the Old Trafford regulars, not every single one of the 60,000 faithful.

Viewed from continental Europe, especially from southern Europe, Keane's remarks come as a bit of a surprise. Firstly, Keane should contemplate the possibility that it is not the prawn-eaters who are spoilt, but that he is. Secondly, maybe those hard-core fans who are so unflinchingly loyal to their clubs are part of what is wrong with the English game, part of the reason why a foreigner has been recruited to try to teach the England team how to play football.

It is an irrefutable truth that, compared to those who ply their trade in Europe's two other super-rich leagues, and especially to those who play for the really big Spanish and Italian clubs, the likes of Roy Keane get a very easy ride from their fans. Barça, Real Madrid, Juventus and Milan supporters will sing "We'll support you ever more", or some Mediterranean version thereof, only in moments of rare madness and delight. Like winning a European Cup final. Or in the case, say, of a Real Madrid crowd, beating Barcelona 5-0.

Which is not to say that the "temperamental Latins" are more wavering in their devotion to their clubs than the English; it is just that they are less expressive, more grudging about making a show of their love. On the other hand they are less shy about giving vent to their disappointment if the team perform badly.

When Manchester United were knocked out of the European Cup by Real Madrid last season at Old Trafford, the United fans kept up their impassioned support even after the final whistle had blown. Keane - who, we might recall, was threatening to leave England for Italy a year ago unless United succumbed to his huge wage demands - might like to take a look at the response of Juve fans to their club's exit from Europe on Wednesday. A delegation of tifosi gathered at Turin airport to pour abuse on their erstwhile heroes upon their return from defeat by Panathanaikos in Greece. It got so bad that at least three Juve players, one of them Zinedine Zidane, got involved in a punch-up with the fans.

As for Spain, where they tend to be particularly fussy about the aesthetics of the game, Bobby Robson never tires of recalling his indignation on the occasion of his Barcelona team beating a First Division rival 6-0 and then being berated by the Nou Camp fans because of what they perceived to be the poor quality of the football.

This season Valencia supporters have been giving the team a hard time even though they have won their Champions' League group at a canter and are top of the Spanish table. Valencia's sin? Having lost half their team to richer clubs in the summer, they are playing percentage football.

Imagine the response from the supporters if Valencia, never mind Real or Barça, had played as atrociously as United did on Wednesday against Dynamo Kiev. They would probably have sung at Keane, Cole and company a local variation of the chant United fans usually hurl at rival teams: "Are you England in disguise?"

Keane complains that the fans get on the players' backs just because of "one or two stray passes", or because the team does not play "fantasy football". Maybe the problem is that English fans do not get on their players' backs enough. Because if they did one might not see so much of the abject passing, poor first-time control and inability to hold on to the ball for more than five seconds that have become the trademarks of English club players and the national side.

A different fan culture in England, one that more closely resembles the Italian or Spanish tradition, would be less noble, less romantic, less passionate. It would be a shame to lose it. On the other hand, if English fans were more insistent about getting their money's worth, more obviously eager to watch the fantasy football to which every lover of the game aspires, then the quality might improve. There would be less "why-oh-whying" about the demise of English football and players would abandon their rustic ways for a more technical, controlled game.

Ideally, one might strive for a happy medium between the unconditional devotion of the English and the excessively demanding southern Europeans. Something, perhaps, like the behaviour Keane finds so distasteful in those United fans who have had the wisdom to discern that what the English game needs is more prawns, and less fish and chips.

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