Brentford’s man-mountain, skipper and Player of the Year, Harlee Dean
To be frank, it was a bit of mismatch. Our young defender against a bigger, faster, wilier centre forward. There was no lack of effort, determination or tactical nous from our man though. He was just coming off slightly second best most of the time.
The near-capacity crowd in this days-gone-by, stands-close-to the-pitch ground of ours was getting restless. The team wasn’t playing well. In fact two-nil down in little more than 15 minutes.
Another lofted through ball and the chase is on – our man runs down the attacker right to the goal-line but just can’t get a tackle in. Unspoken or guttural frustration gives way to grumbling.
“That’s rubbish”. “For Christ’s sake.” “Not again” “Get your head out of your arse” “Make an effort”. There’s a mini Mexican Wave of complaint trundling around our section from all demographics. Maybe more widely too, I don’t know. I do know that it could be heard on the pitch. The seats are so close it would be impossible not to.
But hang on a minute. What are we trying to do here? Our lot are struggling to get back in the game, to find their rhythm. What we can see but possibly the manager can’t (the dug-out is on the other side) is our lad losing an unfair competition against his opponent but sticking with his task as best he can. Football supporters are not passive. The atmosphere we create can change a game, act as a twelfth man. We do not just sit and watch. We are engaged, enmeshed, a key part of the team.
We want our team-mate – one of the 11 on the field who represent our hopes and expectations – to keep going. To try and find that extra half-yard of pace, to get the lucky bounce, make that tackle, not to give up. And we’re going to accomplish this by doing our damndest to put him down, demean his character and denigrate his effort? That’s really going to work, isn’t it?
Don’t get me wrong. I generally love my fellow fans. For their wit, optimism, long-suffering patience, imagination and occasional joyousness. And I have seen players who seemed like chasing a ball was simply too much trouble for them. Who preened arrogantly but did little to justify it. Who are abusive or cheating. I’m not saying they’re all angels, and I’ve done my share of pointing their imperfections out to to them.
But in some sports the response to a mistake is a cry of “Fix It!” and I’ve never heard that at a football ground. There may be many reasons for that. Perhaps Football really is “a gentleman’s game played by hooligans”, but I can’t help feeling that our young defender – and the dozens, hundreds, who were in a similar position on Saturday – would have benefitted more from a collective cry of encouragement than the excoriation that he got.
Why do it then, I ask my football-going companion – a master of strategy and crowd psychology. “Just heat of the moment stuff,” he said. Looking at the increasingly nervous contributions of our player, it didn’t seem too much to ask or expect the crowd to get off his back.
(Fair play to him, after a bit of wobble, he did keep going, made a couple of good, timely tackles, and the crowd’s attitude abated. He also stayed on the pitch for the full 90 minutes.)
What made this episode stick in my mind is that sat all around us are supporters of long-standing, generation-to-generation loyalty. Old, very young, those in-between, men, women. We aren’t in rabid, ugly, abandon-all-hope mob territory. It’s not that sort of club anyway. So two points for me from all this.
First, if we want our teams to play for us, we have to play for them too. That means supporting them and the players when things don’t go so well, and sorting out the difference between being beaten as opposed to not competing.
And second it is not wishful naivety to say we should be mindful of the consequences of our actions. The impact of albeit limited but poor crowd behaviour on the loyalty of a player to a club, on younger impressionable fans, on the performance of the team as a whole? That makes it surely in our own interests as well as the players. The quality of mercy indeed.
What do you think? Hopeless optimism or valid analysis? Let me know!
This piece also appears in The Huffington Post