The problem with football boos: Why are we so quick to turn on our own team? | England

Iit was not nice. The treatment of the England squad and Gareth Southgate by their own fans at Molineux on Tuesday was strong, consistent and, in the words of those, quite ‘disreputable’. There was some debate as to whether this was right or wrong (full disclosure: I’m on the wrong wrong wrong side). But maybe we should also ask ourselves a bit more why this happened in the first place.

First and most obviously, the performance was just plain poor. From Aaron Ramsdale’s goalkeeper to John Stones’ defence, Bukayo Saka being a yard away and Harry Kane ridiculing himself in an attempt to win his second soft penalty of the international break, none of it was good for the eyes. As Southgate has acknowledged, expectations for this England side have been raised and at Molineux – out of two internationals – they have not been met.

Then there’s the relationship with Southgate itself. There are probably some England fans who dislike the manager anymore because of his knee-hold support. He not only defended his players on their decision to protest against systemic racism, but strongly defended it. You can imagine the Home Secretary might have been put off by this, if no one else.

Then there’s the row over the handbrake, the boring football, the failure to get the most out of £100m Manchester City side Jack Grealish. This is a legitimate complaint (if wrong in the opinion of others – that is me) and has been publicized on radio and social media for over a year. It was always going to bubble up at some point. And some of that thinking (especially the boring part?) seems quite communicable – even 2,000 kids felt it was appropriate to boo after the 0-0 draw with Italy.

We’ve passed the peak vest, that sure seems. But it’s also worth noting that the Gareth Southgate celebration was a real thing and lasted a long time, at least two years. It was the kind of treatment that is hardly usual for an English manager in any form. Ask Graham Taylor if he would have enjoyed such hero worship and he surely wouldn’t have.

Southgate has been around long enough for fans to see the limitations, but also to compare and contrast him with other successful football managers in this country. Simon Chadwick is the global sports professor at Em Lyon Business School and often appears in articles like this because he is a provocative thinker of the game. He observes that while Southgate may be the one, he is still not a Pep Guardiola or a Jürgen Klopp.

Does the behavior of Jürgen Klopp (left) and Pep Guardiola have a negative effect on a manager like Gareth Southgate? Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

“If you think of the two best teams in the country right now, Manchester City and Liverpool, they share a performance-based ethos with passion,” says Chadwick. “Klopp, in particular, is almost everyone’s embodiment of what you would want a football manager to be: really in tune with the fans and with the players, he really seems to care.

“In terms of personality and approach it’s almost as if Southgate is a man out of time. He has a sanitized approach to management and in English terms if you go back 10 years it might well have be acceptable. But Premier League football has passed him. You have to see him running down the touchline jumping in the air and screaming, getting drunk with the players, because that’s what Guardiola and Klopp do and have instilled in football watchers and fans.

Chadwick’s insight leads to another reflection, that of identity. Loud boos from the team you are supposed to support are not limited to the national team. It’s a source of frustration for some (me!) that your average Premier League XI is booed for granted. This activity can be seen as indicative of the distance between fans and well-paid players, that nothing but perfection justifies staggering salaries. It could also be that the connection is too close, that people now invest so much in their fan identity that every failure is taken personally. It is aggravated when it is England: it is not only you but your country which has been flouted.

It wouldn’t be 2022 if there wasn’t also a digital piece to the puzzle. There’s an argument that the lack of temperance common to online exchanges seeps into the real world, that Southgate and his men simply got in real life what they would otherwise get on Twitter. Chadwick sees this point but understands it more as part of the basic premises of the modern Internet, where we as consumers have a function to comment on the work of others.

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“We’re all co-creators online, whether it’s on Twitter, Facebook or TikTok,” says Chadwick. “We live in a time where we are contributing, we are co-creators of the product. If any element of this product, the game on the pitch, does not meet standards, we contribute to the further creation of the product reflecting the poor quality of the experience we are getting. We live in an experience economy and we know that on social media we will object and complain about football. What I think we’re starting to see is that kind of co-creation of the experience that’s also starting to take place in the stadium.

You may disagree with some or all of these ideas, and there are other possible explanations (we’re sick of everything, not just football, being one). If too much booing is a bad thing, however, we need to ask ourselves why it happens in order to better understand it. If, that is, we agree that it’s bad in the first place.

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