Football can be a strange old thing. Sometimes it doesn’t do to dwell too much on the phenomenon of thousands of people paying small-ish fortunes to watch a few other people shove a ball around, but yesterday’s affair at White Hart Lane was one of the weirder days.
A team that has made its best ever start to a Premier League campaign earned a narrow but merited win over modest though well-organised opposition that was hard to break down. Luck played its part with the decisive penalty award, but it resulted in a victory that left a team in obvious development three points off the top and with yet another clean sheet in the bag. The home crowd departed broadly happy and in reasonably good voice.
Yet the story now is one of rancour, disagreement and moaning. Andre Villas-Boas’ is responsible in part for this, thanks to an odd whine about the fans not making enough noise and creating an atmosphere of negativity. Odd on two counts: first in that he has been so sure footed in his handling of PR and that this seemed an ill-thought-out misstep; and secondly in that the atmosphere was not actually that bad.
It wasn’t exactly Galatasaray, with the massed ranks bellowing out songs for two hours before kick off, but neither was it Arsenal fans turning on their title-winning manager and accusing him of not knowing what he’s doing in the midst of a sensational run of form, as that lot did on the opening game of this season. Yesterday there were a few groans and grumbles for a misplaced pass and spells of quiet indifference, but on the whole it was ok. There were even a few songs that didn’t involve standing up if you hate Arsenal.
If AVB and the players think it was a poor atmosphere they need to cast their minds back to his first few games in charge when a pointless terrace civil war seemed ready to break out. They might also have recalled the puerile ‘he plays on the left’ chants regarding Gareth Bale aimed at Harry Redknapp two seasons ago. How’s that for negativity?
During the 1980s fans moaned, with Glenn Hoddle often on the receiving end. Listen to fans of more advanced years and they’ll tell you that every side got it.
But that’s as nothing compared to what’s happened before. I’ve been in crowds at White Hart Lane when it’s really been bad – when fans have booed their own players while the game is in progress, individuals have been singled out for merciless abuse, and there’s been such poison in the stands that it’s a wonder ambulance staff were not called to administer an antidote.
That undercurrent of discontent has always been there at WHL and occasionally bubbles to the surface. The 1990s were a generally grim time at Spurs with frequent outbursts of rage, and more often a sullen brooding disquiet over the miserable state of the club. During the 1980s fans moaned, with Glenn Hoddle often on the receiving end. Listen to fans of more advanced years and they’ll tell you that every side got it. Alan Mullery physically confronted one particularly critical fan in the West Stand car park back in the 1970s. Even the Double team got stick – honestly. It comes with the territory, it seems.
Steve Perryman is someone who understands the WHL crowd better than most. He told Martin Cloake and myself in our book The Boys From White Hart Lane that the Tottenham crowd could be tough but that he respected their right to voice complaints for sloppy performances – and that more often than not the home support was positive and loud.
I often bang on about Steve and that side but with good reason, because they produced what we all want to see: a Tottenham team playing thrilling, winning football. Right now the results are terrific, the performances not quite as good. There’s a misconception about Spurs fans that all we want to see is flair and fancy tricks, with results coming a clear second. The truth is we want both.
That’s a good thing. The crowd should demand very high standards. After all, they are charged the prices to match. But if AVB is disgruntled that the results are not getting the support they deserve, he has a point. This is a phenomenal run of form – just four defeats in 31 league games since mid December. With seven new players and the loss of Bale, this should be a season of transition. Yet AVB is outperforming a bloke who has inherited a squad that won the league last year. It’s arguable that Tottenham fans should be in a state of near permanent delirium – but the fact they are not says much about the nature of the game, modern mass spectator sport and the dynamic of a crowd.
There are over 30,000 people in the Spurs home support and as many opinions so it’s crass to make sweeping generalisations. So without further ado, here are some sweeping generalisations. And not just about Spurs but about football in general – because it is not just the Tottenham crowd that is prone to bouts of gloom.
While discontent and silence have long been features of football fandom, the overall nature of support appears to have undergone a shift in recent years. All-seater stadia designed to constrain expression are an obvious factor, along with the rise of a new kind of moneyed, individualistic and perhaps less supportive fan, more ready to voice anger and upset than join in with the communal glee.
The widening social distance between players and fans, the depressing dominance of money and competitive imbalance, and the general feeling that this isn’t ‘our’ game anymore, stir the pot, with the desire for instant gratification an added ingredient. It’s telling from my perspective that some of the best atmospheres I’ve witnessed in recent years have not been in actual grounds but in pubs. I used to hate the football boozer experience; now it often seems closer to the way things once were inside the stadium.
There are some aspects perhaps particular to Spurs, in that there is a desperate desire to restore fortunes and as a consequence a sense of nervousness and impatience when things aren’t going quite to plan. Maybe that’s what happened yesterday. Compounding the issue is social media that feeds opinion and expression at a game. It’s great that everyone has an online voice but maybe not so great when it’s too often used for an obsessive desire to be proved ‘right’, whether it’s about managers past and present, players, chairmen, or specific tactical adjustments.
I’ve been in crowds at White Hart Lane when it’s really been bad – when fans have booed their own players while the game is in progress, individuals have been singled out for merciless abuse
As if any of that matters. What does matter is that clubs tend to fare better when there is unity between players and fans. Villas-Boas’s comments served one positive in that he prompted the chicken-and-egg question of whether it is the crowd that should lift the team or vice versa. That’s an old but interesting debate. It depends who you talk to. Paul Miller said in the aforementioned book that crowd didn’t really bother him one way or the other. Perryman said he heard ‘every ooh and aah’. Micky Hazard is another who stresses how vital a positive support is to get the players performing.
My feeling is that it’s a two-way street. Fans feed off players, players feed off fans. The match against Hull was a good illustration of how the two are intertwined. It might also be an example of a football culture clash. For all the cosmopolitan nature of the Premier League, English (and Welsh) fans still broadly want to see pace, action and goalmouth thrills. Blood and thunder tends to get people more animated than Tiki-Taka. For that reason, perhaps, Tottenham’s patient, deliberate approach right now is reaping points but not garlands and cheers. It wasn’t a carefully constructed passage of passing that got the crowd going yesterday, but Andros Townsend coming back on to the pitch after getting knocked out.
The story will move on from what AVB said. He had a slight dig that smacked of making feelings known that he might best have kept to himself, magnified by his mention of the players having the hump as well. The frustration is understandable – all managers must feel it. I hate to drop the H word here again but Harry Redknapp notoriously and unwisely gave vent to his thoughts about fans and in far blunter language, as Martin notes in his piece on the matter.
The point is perhaps not to go public. Michael Owen, proving to be a more interesting pundit than he was as a player, said on MotD 2 that all players and managers will have a gripe about fans, but that it is best not to state it outside the dressing room.
Nor forgetting that within Villas-Boas’s comments there was much praise for the fans as well as complaint. It may even have a positive outcome in generating a better atmosphere for forthcoming games. To that end, the fine work of the 1882 group twinned with this website is what we should all be applauding. These are fans trying to encourage a louder, more positive atmosphere of the sort that will have AVB and the rest of us smiling, rather than grumbling.
[author name=”Adam Powley” avatar=”https://www.thefightingcock.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/AP-photo-small.jpg” twitter=”adampowley” website=”adampowley.wordpress.com” tag=”AdamPowley[/linequote]