Another week, another confected football row. This time, the Monday headlines are all about how Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas has “slammed” the club’s fans for “negativity”. That should fill up the messageboards and phone-ins for a few days, at least until the next controversy can be whipped up.
I don’t think Andre was particularly wise to say what he did – especially given the tendency of a large section of the mainstream sports media to seize on anything that demonstrates how much they despise ordinary football fans. But let’s look at what he actually said, and at this wider issue of support in the modern game.
He said: “We played in a very difficult atmosphere, very tense, very negative. We had to dig deep within ourselves because we weren’t getting help from anybody, the stadium reflected this atmosphere, very tense and without a lot of support until the first goal.”
There is a valid argument about whether the crowd should inspire the players or vice versa. And the legitimate point has been made that AVB’s team is not yet playing with the kind of verve and zip that transmits itself to the stands. But AVB’s comments are not that much different from the observations many of us have made in recent years.
He also said: “I’m extremely happy with the crowd normally, fans for me represent the essence of football. The away support has been immense. I don’t intend with this message to send them a warning, neither do I intend to hurt their feelings but this is something that is felt within the group. It is a feeling that invades us in fixtures like this. You need that help. We are great believers in emotion and motivation and that is always decisive when you play at home.”
To me, that doesn’t read like someone “slamming” the fans. At least, not when compared with a previous manager who, on a number of occasions called Spurs fans “morons” and “idiots” who “know nothing about football”. Why is it, I wonder, that AVB is painted as anti-fan while Harry Redknapp wasn’t? I don’t like to hear any manager criticise the fans, but there is clearly a difference between how Harry and AVB have chosen to do so.
As a regular at White Hart Lane since 1978, I feel I might be qualified to pass some observation on the nature of the Spurs crowd. Like most Spurs fans, I’ve always bristled at the clichéd description of “fickle” that’s been given to Spurs fans. Given the club’s relative lack of success, the size and intensity of its support has been nothing short of remarkable. There is, of course, much wearing of lilywhite-tinted spec when harking back to a past in which every fan turned up to every game and sang for 90 minutes. Like every ground, White Hart Lane has heard its share of grumbles. Glenn Hoddle, for instance, while now acknowledged as a legend, faced more grumbles than people care to admit about his lack of work rate.
But overall, the Spurs crowd has been passionate and knowledgeable; demanding of what we see but supportive throughout. For me, three examples stand out; the huge support that went to White Hart Lane and turned out around the country when Spurs spent a season in the second flight in my formative years as a fan; the chant of “There’s only one Danny Thomas” that went up after he missed the penalty in the UEFA Cup Final shootout; and the loud and sustained chorus of “We’re gonna win 5-4” from the upper tier of the San Siro when Spurs were 4-0 down against Inter. There are more examples, and readers will have their own memories.
But recently, especially at home, there has been a noticeable change. While the Lane does still jump occasionally, it seems to take more to get it going. And there is a greater tendency to get on the team’s back if things don’t go right straight away. In some quarters, there’s a tendency to blame this on “the season ticket holders”. The logic seems to be that because most of the ground is ST holders and only a minority really get behind the team, that’s down to the ST holders not supporting properly.
But, using the same logic, ST holders make up the bulk of the away support, and as the away support is so good that must mean the ST holders are the most vocal, and it’s al the other buggers who bring us down.
My view is that the undeniable deterioration in the atmosphere at White Hart Lane is a combination of a number of factors, none of which can be singled out as the one thing to blame, but taken together may help to explain what’s happened. While all-seater stadiums plainly do not kill the atmosphere, they do make it harder for groups of like-minded people or friend to congregate in the same area, as they used to or as they find it easier to do at away games.
There’s the not inconsequential price of tickets, which has risen far, far in excess of inflation over the last decade and which, in the end, does make people more demanding because of the promises that must be made in order to keep justifying the increases.
And there’s the growing feeling, if not an original one, that us fans are seen as a problem, an inconvenience, something to be tolerated in order to sell us overpriced tickets, average facilities and rip-off travel packages. All in all, a general feeling that you’re not loved by the club doesn’t instil a feeling of love FOR the club, and it seems the traditional ability to “love the team, hate the club” has fallen away.
In the last 24 hours I’ve seen many axes being ground to explain the deterioration in support – it’s the ST holders, the instant gratification internet generation, a plot by AVB to distract from his tactics etc etc. Most of them don’t really stand up on their own. But I do think there’s an element of football, and our club, reaping what has been sown.
I suspect a room full of Spurs fans will never agree on this (or indeed anything!). But what we can do is make the effort to try and promote a more positive atmosphere while leaving the criticism to outside the 90 minutes of a game. That would make the whole experience far more enjoyable for us and the players, and I can’t think of any negative side effects. It’s surely better than arguing and finger-pointing.