“Notice how all the pro-Lamberk supporters have gone quiet?”
Or words to that effect. I saw the comment on Facebook on Sunday and haven’t bothered to look for them again. I know I captured the sentiment: it’s almost as if the commenter is pleased the team has lost, so he can make his point. Would he have been quietly fuming had we eked out a win or a draw?
Bad times have turned some supporters against one another. You only have to visit the forums and the Facebook pages to see that, moments of clarity aside, an astonishing amount of energy is being expended in a war of words between those who want to sack the manager and those who don’t. Just recently, I wrote that Paul Lambert isn’t the problem. I could be wrong, but I’m sticking to that, no matter how tempting it is to demand change, any change. Blaming one person is a reductive argument, and it’s not productive, because we don’t get to make the decision about whether he stays or goes. And fan infighting is definitely making the season harder to bear than simply the poor performances on the field. One Facebook commenter, saddened by the ongoing negativity, said he was going to stay offline for awhile.
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It’s not all about Lambert. It’s not all about Lerner. It’s not even all about the players. Who is it all about? The fans. Because our experience is what matters. Players, managers, owners—all of them will come and go. The fans are the only constant. It makes a certain amount of sense for fans to be angry with the players, the manager, the owner. It doesn’t really make sense for us to be angry with each other. It isn’t the fans’ job to play the games or pick the team or provide money for transfers and salaries. We’re not meant to be professionals, our judgment isn’t supposed to be infallible.
And is there any fan who doesn’t want the team to do well? We all want the team to do well, and we’re all equally powerless to do anything about it.
Well, almost. Supporters who are able to go to games can put aside the negativity and the infighting, sing and cheer and take on the identity of the mythical creature known as the Twelfth Man. Players are human, they hear it. Even if you think they are jaded professionals who don’t give a shit—and most of them aren’t, most of them are young men who want to do well—it can’t help but lift their spirits and their play.
But, aside from that, fans can’t do anything to affect what happens on the field. So, to preserve the illusion that they CAN do something, they argue with each other. I guess the idea is that, if you win an argument, you’re the better fan. For me, if you start an argument, you’re a poor fan. (I’m talking about real arguments as opposed to friendly banter. Say what you like, but say it with a smile on your face.)
Had we won the game, my response would not have been, “See? I’m right! Keep Lambert!” Because it’s not about Lambert.
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All season long, I’ve been wanting to write an essay for American readers, called, “Relegation: Best Idea Ever, or Merely the Best Idea in Sports?” Because I do believe that relegation is one of the things that makes the Premier League, and La Liga, and Bundesliga, and Serie A, and even Ligue 1, superior to NFL, MLB, NBA, and MLS. The idea that teams will be punished for lack of ambition, success, and results is a good one. Many American cities have teams who are perennial cellar dwellers. Sometimes ownership just doesn’t have the money to compete, sometimes it seems as thought they’d rather spend the money on something besides a competitive team.
But the threat of relegation makes a big club prove to its fans that it is a big club, willing to do what it takes to avoid the drop. And, if a club is too small to compete in the top league, then why not give the fans of another small club a thrill, a chance to see if they can get up and stay up. Look at Wigan: not a bad run.
It’s hard to cheer the idea of relegation this week, as Villa edge ever closer to the scrum at the bottom of the table. Just because I like the idea of relegation, doesn’t mean that I want to see Villa relegated. But the threat of relegation has another purpose besides culling the herd. It gives fans of underperforming teams something to cheer for. It quickens the blood. Here in Chicago, Cubs fans know too well the pain of following their team through a 162-game season with no hope of success and no consequence for failure. In such a situation, the fan becomes an ATM for its owners, visiting the park for the privilege of spending money—lots and lots of money—on overpriced tickets, beer, and merchandise.
Fear of the drop gives fans at the bottom of the table something to worry about and cheer for. It gives creates stakes where otherwise there would be none. It should be a reason we pull together, not fall apart. Yes, it’s been a string of the worst seasons in memory, but turning on each other won’t remedy that.
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Of course, fans of a small club recently promoted to the top tier can cheer a seventeenth-place finish unambiguously. For a small club that has long labored in lower divisions, survival is itself a victory.
It’s different for Villa. Villa is one of a handful of teams never to have been relegated from the Premier League. It’s a team that has won the European Cup. It’s a team with one of the longest, proudest, and richest traditions in English soccer—its fans are not content to merely stay up.
The question remains: is Villa still a big club? I believe it is, its fans know it is, and hopefully Randy Lerner understands this. He’s rich, but he’s not a sheikh or a Russian oligarch. He doesn’t see the team as an extension of himself, so he’s not going to throw money at it, not after what happened with Martin O’Neill. He’s getting the finances in order for measured improvement. Will we ever win the league again? I don’t know. I think we should grow back into a club that competes for fifth, sixth, or seventh every year. I think most of us would be happy with that.
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It’s taken me a couple of days, obviously, to write this. Time’s been in short supply and I’ve (clearly) had a hard time focusing my thoughts. There’s not much I want to say about the game itself. Our passing was awful, we allowed too many corners, and we gave Newcastle far too many chances. The only thing that saved us as long as it did was that their finishing was woeful. I heard someone describe it as “Two drunks trying to fit their keys in the lock,” which is apt.
I keep playing our best chance in my head. Benteke, moving toward the goal with the ball at his feet. He has support to the right and the left. We have numbers. All he has to do is play the ball to the open man at his left, and surely we score. But Benteke dithers, perhaps thinking he’ll be the hero, he loses the ball, the moment is over.
Benteke, our savior last season: could he become an albatross, the man we wished we’d sold when we had the chance?
There’s no doubt about it, this one hurt. I rate my pain at about a seven. You?