A beginner’s guide to football fandom
This piece was published in OTBC, the Norwich City matchday programme, for the Premier League game against Watford on 8 November 2019. Subscribe to OTBC here.
What do we, as fans, want from football players? It seems like an obvious question: to play well and with heart, to care about the club they represent, and to acknowledge and respect the contribution – financial and otherwise – of supporters.
But what happens when this unspoken contract is breached? For fans of other clubs, watching the on-field meltdown of Granit Xhaka after his Arsenal side let a two-goal lead slip against Crystal Palace was a cheap sort of thrill that gave way to disbelieving sympathy for the embattled 27-year-old: what did the baying crowd expect?
That same weekend, we witnessed another display of discord, this time from Southampton, who simply evaporated in the face of a Leicester onslaught. Many fans left after the third goal, in the 19th minute; but many stayed, too, in the driving rain, determined to play their part, however painful. In an acceptance that, in losing 9–0, Ralph Hasenhüttl’s side had failed to live up to their side of the bargain, the club promptly announced that they’d be donating the day’s wages to their charity arm, the Saints Foundation. A week later they made Manchester City work hard for a 2–1 victory, and order was restored.
There is no similarly simple remedy to heal the rift at Arsenal, though. Both the fans and the player misbehaved, which means there has been a double breach of that unspoken contract – although really, there’s been just one offence: frustration, publicly expressed. To my mind, though, the fans’ behaviour was worse than Xhaka’s, and more of a betrayal.
It felt emblematic of a creeping kind of modern fandom that’s rooted in a sense of entitlement and expectation. Gripes about player selection or the lack of a clear identity are valid, sure, but – especially to someone whose team will be battling to stay afloat this season – it’s hard to see how the vitriol supporters gave voice to that night at the Emirates can be justified. And it seems counterproductive at best and deeply flawed at worst to target Xhaka, who may be struggling on the pitch but who clearly understands the weight of the badge on his chest.
More and more, fans seem to demand so much, and to assume that by giving their time and money, they are excused from giving anything else: empathy, perhaps, or understanding – certainly not patience. Many have pointed out that Xhaka recently became a father, a small human detail that – without excusing or justifying – adds important perspective to the wider picture, and something he referenced himself in the statement he made that fell pointedly short of being an apology.
The problem is that the increasingly high stakes of the Premier League leave little time or space for this kind of reflection, as some Norwich fans are perhaps beginning to realise. Tempers are shorter, judgements are hastier, outlooks are gloomier; every bit of the team is under scrutiny, support included. When points are hard to come by, small flaws are magnified, and can become catastrophic.
The good news is that we at Norwich are better equipped than most to survive this. Let’s remind ourselves of the first rule of football fandom, the one immortalised by HRH Delia back in 2005: ask not what your club can do for you, but what you can do for your club. In trying times, we must reacquaint ourselves with the supporter’s section of the player-fan code, which goes something like this: Turn up. Be loud. Celebrate. Be patient. Forgive. Go again.
Part of the Arsenal crowd’s fury that day came from a feeling of helplessness: match after match, they see the same problems afflicting their team, but nothing is done about it. It’s a feeling that will particularly sting at the Emirates, where, on average, a ticket costs nearly £100.
But that cost confers no ownership, at least not over the players. A ticket gets you a seat in the stadium and a chance to be part of something, but no more. It entitles you to 90ish minutes of football, of wildly varying quality, but it also bestows a certain responsibility: to play your part. The irony of Xhaka-gate is that it showed just how much influence fans do have; the shame of it is that that power was put to such poor use.
Of course supporters are allowed to voice frustration and dissent – a good moan is one of the few pleasures to be had during a disappointing run. But we can’t set expectations for players and then disregard the ones they, and the club more broadly, have for us. If we can’t control what happens on the pitch, we might as well take charge of what we can, starting with one firm resolution: to enjoy ourselves. Remember those commandments: Turn up. Be loud. Celebrate. Be patient. Forgive. Go again.