Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Voices in the Dark

How far fans influence and affect the performances of their teams has become one of social media’s more loaded debates in recent years. In Arsenal parlance, the argument almost always resurfaces after a run of poor results. There is a section of the fan base that will reserve harsh criticism for the ‘support’, or lack thereof, when the team is at a low ebb.

In many respects, this is an attempt, conscious or otherwise, to redirect the criticism and stem the flow of invective towards players and manager. The supporters are rarely praised for their positive influence on good performances or pleasing victories. Few of the ‘blame the fans’ types put any portion of a consummate performance and victory in Milan down to the 2,000 that travelled in support of the team.

Yet none of this is to say that supporters are immune to criticism, or that they don’t create a hostile environment for their own teams. Alas, hostility seems to be the way of the world at the moment. I watch quite a lot of South American football and it’s fair to say that English football fan culture is one of the most mild mannered fan cultures in the world.

But as the recent scenes at West Ham show, the dial on fan dissatisfaction and disengagement is beginning to turn in the UK. The disorder at the recent West Ham v Burnley match demonstrates that a hugely negative environment certainly has consequences on player performance. That particular match was evenly contested until Burnley nudged into a one goal lead.

Smarting from the concession of a goal, the simmering anger of the home crowd began to spike and spilled over into scenes of outright mutiny. Burnley quickly scored two more goals as the Irons fell apart against a back drop of vitriol. My friend Ricky says that English football atmospheres, though very diluted compared with yesteryear, are still among the most affecting in Europe.

This is because, in Ricky’s opinion, English football fans respond to the ebb and flow of the game. We have both been to enough stadiums around Europe to know that English fans are far from the loudest or most effusive. But the key difference is that more boisterous support on the continent is often choreographed and constant, regardless of what is happening in the game.

I have been to Dortmund a few times now and though the noise is ear splitting at first, its constancy means that you tune it out pretty quickly. After a while, it is background noise- like a distant lawnmower on a summer’s day. As such, I question how far it motivates or energises players. The aim seems more designed for the enjoyment of the fans themselves than the players- and there is nothing wrong with that of course.

In February 2016, Liverpool fans staged a hugely effective walkout in the 77th minute of a league match against Sunderland. This was to protest a recent ticket price announcement. The Reds were 2-0 ahead when the walkout happened. The sight and sound of around 10,000 people leaving the stadium unquestionably disturbed the ambience and unquestionably distracted the players. Sunderland scored twice in the final 13 minutes to secure a 2-2 draw.

The concession of a two goal lead, as well as being an effective protest optically speaking, helped the supporters to hammer home their importance. Besides which, the stadium is pretty much the only place where supporters can effectively register dissatisfaction. The increase in aggressively capitalistic ownership structures have made protest a far more regular occurrence. I think the conclusion I would draw is that atmosphere has a tangible effect on players- for better or worse- when there is a spike in the mood.

Games often become livelier when a quiet home crowd are provoked into action. Likewise, a swift souring of the mood can have a corrosive effect on players. It becomes a vicious cycle, the worse the team plays, the more the supporters grumble and the more quickly confidence can disappear. Undoubtedly, the longevity of the manager and the slow deterioration of performances at Arsenal have created a quite unique discontent at the Emirates.

Home games are largely contemplatively quiet at the Emirates, as they are at just about every other stadium in the Premier League (with the odd exception). Far from the backdrop of outright mutiny that many would have you believe, there is certainly a base layer of discontent brewing barely below the surface of the Arsenal support. Though a lot of the discontent has now melted away into empty red seats.

Yet Arsenal’s home record is generally outstanding, which suggests the low level tutting and sighing does little to inhibit performance. 3,000 Arsenal away fans are louder and more rumbustious than 57,000 (ahem) or so Arsenal home fans, yet the team’s away record this season remains miserable. But players and managers across the game constantly talk up the effect of a positive, energised support.

It’s difficult to separate how heavily these statements are laced with platitude. But one of the first things Jurgen Klopp tried to do at Liverpool was to energise the home support. The joined hands gesture in front of the Kop after a 2-2 home draw with West Brom was possibly a little clumsy in its execution. But it demonstrated how important a charged atmosphere is to Klopp, who asks his teams to play a high octane brand of football.

My guess is that a good atmosphere has a very, very marginal effect on players overall. The game is so fast and the concentration levels so high for players that it is probably very difficult to even gauge what the fans are doing at times. But marginal gains are very important in elite sport and if it can assist by less than 1 per cent, it is worth doing.

The problem of course, is that supporters are not elite level athletes. We become stressed when we watch our teams and we find that difficult to control. Being a footballer is a lot like being a policeman or a politician in this respect. Everyone has a very firm opinion on how you should do your job, but almost nobody (except your peers) has an informed opinion on your work.

Fans and critics cannot know and understand the pressure of making hundreds of snap decisions a game with thousands of pairs of judging eyes watching over you- most of whom cannot harness their stress like you can. That creates a jarring cocktail- which Per Mertesacker touched on recently. Yet even in 2018, that teams are better at home than they are away from home remains one of the game’s truisms.

I suspect a lot of this is due to the psychology of familiarity. Much in the same way that, no matter how welcome you are as a guest in someone else’s house, you are never more comfortable than when you are in your own. Despite the quietening of support inside English football grounds, the power of persuasion is still exerted over referees.

Nothing unites a crowd like a common enemy and referee baiting remains one of the game’s most enduring habits, which plays into the number of favourable decisions a home team gets. Grumpy supporters are not purely a symptom of the modern age of course. In my piece on the 1952-53 season on the patreon site, I talk about how the Arsenal fans were seen as a universally negative presence for Arsenal’s league winners that season.

In the all-conquering 1930s, Herbert Chapman took out adverts in the match-day programme imploring fans to be more supportive of the players. Crowds have always used football matches as a vehicle to exorcise themselves of the frustrations and tedium of the working week, which is not exactly conducive to creating a nice positive ambience for the lads on the pitch.

All of us sit close to that annoying guy (and it is always a man) that doesn’t open his mouth unless it is to chide and criticise. We all sit near that guy who hates player x so much and baits him so openly at the tiniest invitation, that you sit agog that someone could suspend their critical faculties in such a way. We all sit near that man that shouts “shooooot!” when Xhaka has his back to goal. With the ball on his right foot. In the centre circle.

Yet I still think the overall effect- negative or positive- is minimal. To my mind, if a positive atmosphere makes even 0.0001% difference to the team then it is worth doing. But I also think people overplay the impact of a background grumble hum. I am inclined to think a spike in atmosphere either way will have a tangible effect on players, otherwise, I think they are probably too occupied to truly engage.

But ultimately, a universally positive climate is probably unattainable. For a start, rightly or wrongly, money has driven a wedge between fans and players, which means they knowingly operate in separate stratospheres. That leads to an air of disunion. Yet the crux of the issue always is and always has been that elite level athletes deal with sport’s stress in a different way to the rest of us. That’s why they are on the pitch and we are in the seats.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– Or like my page on Facebook

Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available for pre-order here.

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