Fear, loathing and football: Explaining a peculiarly turbulent season

Bobby Kennedy once famously suggested that “One fifth of the people are against everything all of the time”. Anybody who has followed this peculiarly turbulent English football season might feel Kennedy was understating his case. There has always been an undercurrent of fear and loathing in football, but in 2011/12 they have been the season’s defining emotions.

The most significant events – the Luis Suarez case, the shocking suicide of Gary Speed, the Carlos Tevez saga, the collapse of Rangers – have made ugly headlines as the beautiful game becomes an industrialised melodrama in which a monstrous regiment of Sky Sports News reporters are permanently stationed outside British football grounds in the apparent belief – all too often sadly justified – that if they stand there clutching their microphones for long enough, something – some event, micro-event, or rumour of an imminent micro-event – will happen.

The big scandals have been relentlessly, even recklessly, hyped up by the media so that a season graced by some remarkable games – United 8-2 Arsenal, United 1-6 City and Arsenal 5-2 Spurs – may end up being defined, in the history books, by the absence of a handshake.

Except for me, the defining image of the season so far is the hatred on the faces of Blackburn fans as they taunted their manager Steve Kean this winter, a scene almost as disturbing as the hellish visions of the Dutch Renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch and football’s most agonising contribution to the car crash TV genre.

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The frustration is understandable. It can’t be easy being coached by a man who looks (and some would say manages) like one of Peter Kay’s sidekicks in Max And Paddy’s Road To Nowhere or having your new owners damningly referred to in the media as “Indian chicken farmers”. It’s odd the way the media invariably uses that exact description as if they would be slightly less reprehensible if they were merely Indian or chicken farmers but the fact that they are both puts them mysteriously beyond the pale.

But the ferocity is troubling. Relegation – and I say this as a Leicester City fan – used to be viewed, rather as sitcom burglar Norman Stanley Fletcher regarded arrest, as an occupational hazard. Not any more. Mind you, at the other end of the Premier League table, the mere prospect of a season without UEFA Champions League football has inspired more fear and loathing at Arsenal and Chelsea than Hunter S. Thompson found in Las Vegas or on the campaign trail.

In the first half of the North London derby, the kindest thing any Arsenal fan said to Theo Walcott was “Get him off!” The promising, but frustratingly inconsistent winger had become a potent symbol of everything some fans resented about Arsene Wenger’s management. The harassment got so intense that any remark to Walcott that didn’t contain an expletive must have struck the player as a compliment. No wonder he celebrated his goals with such joy.

Meanwhile in west London, the Andre Villas-Boas project has entered treacherous waters. Every team selection or substitution is analysed for evidence of incompetence. Chelsea’s travails illustrate perfectly how fatuous the British media’s football coverage has become. When AVB arrived in the summer, the media unanimously agreed that his major task was to rejuvenate an ageing, underperforming squad. Six months later, he is being crucified for – yep – trying to rejuvenate an ageing, underperforming squad.

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Building a new team is, like the regeneration of Dr Who, an uncertain process: you never know whether you’re going to end up with David Tennant or Sylvester McCoy. And so far, the new Chelsea have been more McCoy than Tennant. Yet they played their most fluent football of 2011/12 when they demolished Valencia in December when Frank Lampard was on the bench and Didier Drogba looked bothered.

From the outside, it is hard to say unequivocally whether AVB is the right man for the job – or whether his critics in the squad are justified. But the situation is surely more complex than the media would suggest. Most Chelsea fans I speak to revere Lampard but admit to reservations about his current game. A few have wondered what has happened to Ashley Cole’s sat nav. As great as Cole has been, some supporters feel John Terry has been blamed for not filling space created by Cole’s inconsistent positioning. 

What Arsenal, Blackburn and Chelsea have in common is a feeling among supporters that they have no control. I wonder, harking back to Bobby Kennedy, whether that lack of control has become more painful because of the economic turmoil we are living through. Through little fault of our own, all of us are living with a degree of uncertainty about our everyday lives we find it hard to handle. Our lack of control is mirrored at international summits where even the politicians, who can normally be relied upon to fudge their way out of a massive crisis, have often looked at a loss. No wonder so many of us are against everything all of the time.

The cliché is that football reflects society. If that is true, David Cameron ought to be very worried.