Barthes? Wasn’t he that bald keeper for the Mancs…
Surveys have long suggested men enjoy watching football as it is one of the few predominantly masculine pastimes that allows males to display a range of feelings otherwise deemed inappropriate. In particular it’s said men can bond at games and share a more gentle side. Admittedly I wasn’t looking all that hard – but I didn’t spot any psychologists at the 1-1 draw between West Ham and Middlesbrough on Tuesday evening. A good thing too; as Dorothy Parker unkindly said of Katharine Hepburn, “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” And so it was at the Boleyn Ground with attitudes as extreme as Angst-ridden discontent all the way through to Blazing fury. For the real men at Upton Park you see, it’s all about anger.
Despite a campaign during which the Hammers have seldom been out of contention for a promotion place the team have slipped to third in the table albeit by just two points and with a game in hand over second-placed Reading. That blip is largely as a result of a consecutive streak of five draws at home. No matter the team are on a nine-game unbeaten run and haven’t lost since a freezing January night at Ipswich, the levels of expectation are such this isn’t considered good enough.
Opposing clubs come to the East End fully briefed to “park the bus”, slow the game down as much as officials will allow and defend for their life in the knowledge home “supporters” will soon be bellowing abuse at their own side. The fans want to watch a winning side so they scream at their own players making them nervous, edgy and therefore less likely to emerge victorious. I decided to challenge such a strange set of behaviours and engaged with two of the disaffected seated near to me during the half-time interval.
I started off with a polite enquiry by asking them if they’d played much football. The reply came back in the negative so I suggested (as somebody who has) one of the most important aspects of all team games is confidence – players need to be in a state as Mike Brearley put it of “relaxed concentration” to perform at their peak. No reply was forthcoming to this so I pressed the point and asked why they continually criticise the team despite it clearly having an adverse effect on the players. (Our away performances this season where the more committed supporters have a well-deserved reputation for both turning out in numbers and getting behind the team eclipse our efforts in London).
Here we reached the nub of the matter. “Our football”, I was told, “is shit”. My new friends went on to inform me they had “Never seen such dire football in 30 years of coming here”, before adding “We want some entertainment”. We finished on good terms and with handshakes all round despite their clear puzzlement at my advice that should they require entertaining perhaps Robbie Williams would be a better use of their finances. So far this season West Ham have played 37 games and won 19, over half. Last term we won seven from 38 and the preceding campaign just eight from the same amount. So I’m sorry boys – but you’re talking garbage. And especially when it’s exactly your behaviour that results in opponents doing everything they can to prevent us playing. The parallels with historic and self-destructive working class attitudes towards the workplace, politics and politicians are not difficult to draw.
The common narrative is manager Sam Allardyce produces “boring” football and relies on “long-ball” tactics to win games. Neither is true. While at Bolton Big Sam allied his strong organisational skills and love of statistics to the use of flair players such as Youri Djorkaeff, Jay-Jay Okocha and Nicolas Anelka. Anybody who has seen the Route One football of teams such as Wimbledon under Dave Bassett, Cambridge with John Beck at the helm or Lincoln under Graham Taylor would be shocked to watch Mark Noble take a free-kick on the half-way line and tap it short to a colleague. Even Stoke in the Premier League would lump it.
Post-match and very disappointed at the result I turned for solace to my old sociology mucker and the inventor of semiotics Roland Barthes. While not smoking himself to death the Frenchman spent much of his too-short life writing about myth and mythology. Not a flowing-haired virgin astride a unicorn plunging through a starlit forest you understand, but a study of how relatively common place objects can attain in public consciousness qualities over and above their actual form as ruling classes establish its values. Pertinently for us Barthes spoke of professional wrestling; believing it not a “real” sport but an acting out of universal themes such as life, death good and evil in a stage-managed “pantomime” where the protagonists project clichéd versions of human weakness.
I’m not for a second going to suggest professional footballers bear any relation to the manufactured “personalities” of wrestling, nor do I believe match-fixing to be anything but the smallest of fringe activities within the sport. But look to our mass media and it’s pretty clear where their priorities lie. Sky Sports routinely talk up matches beyond any reasonable expectation. Newspapers sell by means of fuelling perceived vendettas between managers and players, while live coverage will often concentrate on “issues” surrounding the game as much as the football itself. Style above substance, myth before reality.
Put in that light it is West Ham’s misfortune to possess a highly gifted manager portrayed as academic and dull while at the same time lacking in flair. Perhaps I should not have been alarmed to have heard choruses of “We want Di Canio” towards the conclusion of the match. Massively talented as a player, while at West Ham the now Swindon manager was prone to repeated fits of ill-discipline, notoriously disliked by team-mates and often invented injuries to get out of playing games (particularly up north) if he thought we’d get beaten. Paolo Di Canio’s egomania is considered evidence of a talented individual who despite hailing from Rome is “one of us” while Big Sam’s supreme confidence a negative from “the Northern fat-head.”
As they (too often) say around East 13, “That’s a terrible myth!”
Posted on March 22, 2012, in West Ham United and tagged boleyn ground, crowd reaction, middlesbrough, mythologies, philosophy, roland barthes, sociology, upton park, west ham. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.