Recently, during the London underground industrial action, I was door stopped by a wandering reporter at Victoria station. He asked me how my journey to work had been affected by the strike. I told him that I was about to undertake a walk of a shade over two miles to my office. (I’ll pause whilst you stop to wipe that lone tear from your eye). Sensing an angle of agitation, the reporter pressed me for some freshly baked indignation, the camera man took a step towards me eagerly, sensing his hero shot.
“So what are your thoughts on the workers that are on strike?” His expression dropped when I replied that I had yet to take the trouble to really read up on the reasons for the strike, so I didn’t feel well informed enough to hold any sort of opinion on their actions. “So you don’t mind walking over 2 miles to work?” he haughtily responded.
Not appreciating his tone I testily pointed out that there are many people in the world that have to walk greater distances for clean water on a daily basis, which seemed a much greater injustice. Given the lack of messages I received from friends and family subsequently, it’s a safe guess that my segment didn’t feature in their programme. In this day and age, we are increasingly being pressed for extreme reactions and sound bites. This is just as apparent in football as it is current affairs.
Social media oils the wheels of emotive reaction as we seek to express ourselves and be noticed in the 140 character culture. When we don’t possess all of the facts about a certain situation, the natural response is not to talk about it at all. “I don’t know” doesn’t make interesting copy for anyone. We now live in a time when all of our thoughts and feelings are public and published to complete strangers, so it stands to reason that society’s reactions are becoming more performative. We’re playing to an audience after all. They’re not just opinions, they’re intellectual property.
So for instance, when Olivier Giroud and Mesut Özil miss games for what we assume to be “psychological” reasons, or when Yaya Sanogo starts a match for the first time, it’s logically impossible for supporters to hold a strong opinion on the legitimacy of those decisions. They may be judicious, they may not be. But given the lack of genuine information available to us in these private matters, we’re simply not in a position to hold a strong view on a matter that takes place entirely away from our eyes and ears. Yet it doesn’t seem to stop many.
This week, a screen grab from a well known Stoke City fanzine showing a quite extraordinary level of ire towards Aaron Ramsey emerged. (I won’t link it and I’m sure you’ve all seen it by now in any case). Therein, the writer(s) expresses no small level of offence at Ramsey’s finger to lips gesture when he scored against Stoke earlier in the season. Their demand was for the increasingly popular #mutedcelebration, a trend that has increased exponentially in the last 3 years or so.
Jonjo Shelvey played less than 50 league games for Liverpool, yet he was moved to execute the “non celebration” gesture when he scored against them at Anfield on Sunday. (“Look, look I’m putting my hands up. Look at me not celebrating. Look! Look at how reverential and respectful I am. LOOK DAMN YOU!”) The response from the home support was a thoroughly sporting round of applause. (“Thank you so much for not offending us.”) Both the Stoke fanzine and the continued fad of not celebrating (“LOOK!”) caused me to reflect on the culture of offence that football is sleepwalking into.
When the camera came to prominence in the late 19th century, it had a significant impact on our culture. People became aware of how they looked and what their image said about them. The first permanent photograph ever taken is suspected to have been snapped in 1826. The dandy craze arrived in around 1830 and grew as the prominence of the photograph increased. The correlation is no coincidence. People began to dress more outlandishly and fashion became something more than just a necessity or an allusion to one’s social class.
We are in the relatively early stages of the rolling news/social media age and what we’re seeing now is a kind of emotional dandyism emerging. The upshot of publishing all of our thoughts and opinions is that those opinions tend to become more affected as we subconsciously try to place them in the pantheon of the wider public. As such, we’re much more willing to take offence. We crave offence now, we even look for it. So now, to score against one’s former club or against a club with which one has some ‘history’, this schooled show of ‘respect’ is becoming demanded protocol.
Refusing to celebrate is equated with “showing respect” so, by implication, celebrating is considered disrespectful. A player responding quite harmlessly to stick from opposing supporters is met with outrage. Sensibilities are appalled and apologies are demanded, all the while with a subconscious wink towards the baying hordes. The irony of course is that the #mutedcelebration is now so de rigueur that it’s no longer heartfelt or genuine (especially when punctuated by the “hands bent in submission” gesture). It’s expected behaviour.
I recall an incident around 13 years ago, when Coventry City were fighting relegation. Gary McAllister, an ex player, scored a free kick for Liverpool against his former team which went a long way towards confirming their relegation. McAllister’s reaction was to simply turn back to the centre circle. He didn’t celebrate the goal, but it wasn’t an affected “look at me I’m not celebrating” gesture, which has become a kind of celebration in itself. McAllister’s gesture seemed all the more remarkable because of its rarity. Its authenticity is lost in a modern context.
It’s become as much of a sham as the forced pre match handshake. In fact, the breathless furore around such fripperies as the handshake elucidates this trend for outrage. The problem is that every time the non celebration takes place, every time somebody feels hounded into apologising for something quite trivial, we reinforce and legitimise the hysterical when we ought to be marginalising and ridiculing them.
One of football’s most treasured charms is its unpredictability and the emotion that that produces. That’s becoming lost in the branches of the PR jungle. Emotional incontinence isn’t looked upon as a character flaw in football fans now, it’s seen as an inevitable by product to be pandered to. Players are more careful than ever to sculpt their reactions to avoid controversy such is the feverish climate of offence. We no longer consider ourselves responsible for our own reactions.
I was in the away end at Manchester City in 2009 when Adebayor celebrated with a 70 yard sprint and knee slide in front of the Arsenal fans. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it one bit. I was irked. Irked I tell you. But I was supposed to be. I had, after all, spent the previous hour or so happily partaking in a song for which the prevailing lyric was “we’ve got Arshavin, fuck Adebayor!” I didn’t like the celebration because I knew I was getting my comeuppance.
Whilst I’m clearly not too childish to tunefully swear at a man I’ve never met, I was at least able to absorb his response without throwing chairs around and screaming myself hoarse, as some Arsenal fans around me did. Whilst the celebration of Adebayor and the lip trembling indignation of the Stoke fanzine admittedly represent the extreme ends of the spectrum, they do highlight the modern inability to compute mild controversy without feeling incredibly sensitive.
The upshot is that the spontaneity and some of the excitement of the game is being diluted as sensibilities become more and more precious. The drama on the pitch is giving way to this theatre of over emotion. Actually doing something interesting and spontaneous just isn’t worth the hassle anymore. I happen to think that’s a shame. In fact, I’m mortally offended by it and demand that you all apologise. LD.
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