If you hadn’t already guessed, this post will consist mostly of me claiming the moral high ground on behalf of everyone who refrained from giving Gary McSheffrey grief at the weekend. Fasten your belts, socks, earmuffs, crocheted bobble hats and underpants (this sort of impudent defiance has been known to arouse).
Let’s get one thing clear before I start. I don’t think Gary McSheffrey’s form has been particular good this season, or since he returned to the club for that matter. He’s not as fast as he once was, and he knows it. He’s prone to rash decisions most games; whether that’s committing to a first-time cross five seconds before the ball has even arrived to him, or fouling purely because he’s messed up and thinks it’s the best way to rectify the situation. He does all of this stuff and sends the fans bandy with annoyance. Consider all that acknowledged.
I also recognise and openly encourage analysis/criticism of any footballer as an expected part of football – just as it is with the team. As with any sport, if you don’t criticise when things aren’t working, you can’t really set an acceptable standard and it becomes easier for performances to fall below that. We’re not talking about screaming blue murder when someone makes a mistake, we’re just saying it’s not necessarily wrong to point it out, if by doing that you’re aiming to reduce the likelihood of it occurring again.
But the idea of a boo-boy – someone who the fans feel compelled to loudly and relentlessly criticise for every single mistake (whether obvious or debatable) – this has never sat comfortably with me.
Sure, football has become a pantomime and a lot of what happens nowadays has to be taken with a pinch of salt. People boo, hiss, cheer and scream because they’re whipped up in the hoopla of emotion which accompanies every football match. Professional players know this – it comes with the territory, and in the main they’re thick-skinned enough to accept it.
Half-time booing of the team is one example of the footballing pantomime which I personally think can often offer value. It’s a generic noise of displeasure, aimed at no individual in particular, and serves a single purpose – it’s the fans’ way of letting the team know that how they’re performing has fallen below the standard expected of them. OK there’s contention with that too, because even then there’s often a conflict in the crowd between those happy with the performance and those with an eye firmly on the scoreline. There are also many who believe supporters are there to perform a sole function of support – pure and simple.
It’s a tricky one to establish boundaries around, but it certainly feels as though booing of the team in general can have its merits, with many players themselves having noted their reactions to this in the past. You can just imagine the group of players getting pissed off with it, plotting acts of defiance, resulting in a widespread increase in workrate in the second half. They’re a team, they’ll work and fight as a team. It seems a sensible and realistic conclusion.
On Saturday however, McSheffrey became the latest target for focused abuse from an audible collection of City fans. He had an anonymous first half by anyone’s admission, and following a growing feeling over recent weeks that he doesn’t warrant a place in the team, this latest performance was enough to provoke a second half reaction littered with booing, exasperation at substitutions that didn’t involve him, screams of derision; all culminating in a chorus of cheers as he was eventually removed from play.
Watching all this unfold, I was not only uncomfortable being a “part” of it. I was angry.
This guy has played well over 200 games for his hometown club. He’s one of our top ten scorers of all time, and while you’ll all have differing opinions about how he performed against Hartlepool (and throughout this season) – that shouldn’t really matter – the guy was playing for us, not the opposition. He was a Coventry City player, and has been for a very long time.
It’s a mind-bending situation when things like that start to count for nothing from the stands. Of course I’m not saying he should be immune from criticism – but Saturday once again strayed beyond the basic grumbling you simply have to expect at a football match, and into the realms of victimisation.
Lots of people were involved, and the reasons for what happened tend to fall within the “He wasn’t playing very well/wasn’t trying/needs a kick up the arse” category. I’m not sure I can accept any of them as valid enough reasons to jeer your own player off the pitch.
As I mentioned, he had an silent first half. But in reality, if you’re one of these fans who is now consumed by the idea that he’s a poor player, that sort of first half is only going to accentuate your attention on the negative. I’m not one of those people – I’m fairly agnostic about the team selection as a whole this season, seeing as there’s been little link between formations and line-ups and where we’ve garnered points. From my seat, I felt that McSheffrey’s involvement and work-rate rose massively in the second. OK, he made mistakes, was hustled off the ball a few times and bumbled his way out of a great opportunity. But the argument that he wasn’t trying – I really can’t accept that one. In reality, there are going to be very few players who don’t try – especially those who have a stadium on their back permanently demanding that they do so.
Also, this cheering of substitutions isn’t a one-time thing. One defence of it I’ve heard is around the idea that treating him in this way might be the best thing for him – a cruel to be kind scenario. That could be somewhat acceptable, if it didn’t happen whenever a City player who is having an off-day is subbed off. It’s not just McSheffrey – loads of them have had it over the years. Baker, Bell, Best and Kyle are some of the more prominent examples – all having to accept fans cheering the decision to take them off, to varying degrees.
How about the impact this behaviour is having on the manager? I always get concerned about the unnecessary pressure being placed on him when this treatment of one of his players crops up. It’s hard enough attempting to please everyone when there are thousands of differing perspectives, each with a slightly different slant of things. There are people in the stadium who think that McSheffrey is still a useful and viable option in the team – the manager is clearly one of them. But in the back of his mind now he’s now got to take into consideration how detrimental continuing to play him may be, as well as what the reaction is going to be like if he wants to sub him. As a manager there’s a duty to protect players from a lot of things – the continued wrath of your own supporters shouldn’t be one.
The final resentment I have about it all is a very simple one. Gary McSheffrey is a bloke, playing a game of football on a pitch. Being picked on like this – especially by those who are supposedly there to support him – surely can’t have have any positive impact. It’s victimisation. How is isolating his performance as he walks off going to make things better? It’s nasty, it’s opportunistic, it’s puerile, it’s excessive. He’s just a footballer who’s not played very well. Acting like a bunch of swines isn’t going to fix things. Nobody’s expecting people to go nuts with adulation; the generic and often impulsive noise made in response to the events of a game will make our feelings as fans clear enough. At least with those groans of discontent, the guy has a team to rally around him and still has the opportunity to answer the critics through his own play. Picking out the one moment when the focus of an entire stadium is on him goes beyond being necessary. There has to be some limits in the criticism; some restraint.
There are no set rules on how to support a football team – only a culture that has developed over a number of years which most fans buy into with varying degrees of pleasure. We have our own at Coventry City, and it’s becoming a predictable one with predictable actions. Low attendances will always draw an applause; we hate long-ball and passing the ball backwards in equal measure; and we’ll happily boo one of our own when he’s subbed off. Those three have us written all over them.
Personally, I never liked Michael Doyle. I thought his service to the team was admirable, but his performance levels were erratic, and his selection and adulation amongst the fans was based on an illusion of effort rather than the actualities of his game. But I’d never boo him – never single him out when he was trudging off the pitch after another game tapping at the ankles of superior players. There’s surely a line of decency, and as difficult as it is to pin it down when so many aspects of criticism have their merits, focusing attention on a single individual is where the boundary lies in my mind. It’s hard enough managing your emotions in a game, but when they’re subbed off, you actual have time to absorb the event; time to manage your response more rationally. I’d ask that the next time it happens and you hear someone let up a huge cheer, or a massive boo in the direction of one of our own guys – just ignore them. Simply do nothing, even if you do believe the player’s been playing badly. Let the sub take place and the muted ripple of applause scatter around the stadium. It’s neutral – which in itself says “we didn’t think much to that today, mate”. You get the same message, minus any victimisation, negative influence or needless pressure on the player or the manager.
Everyone has the right to support Coventry City in a way that they’re comfortable with. This may mean you don’t travel 200 miles to an away game. Or don’t stand up, even when a chorus of that song demands it. But surely the players have enough grief from opposition fans? There’s literally nothing I can say that will dissuade a drunken person from screaming abuse at an opposing player. That’s solidarity to your cause – I get that. But at home, if you have your choice of picking on a player – surely you should focus your attentions of insulting the guys on the other team? He’ll at least be expecting it and will have heard it all before. Not your own man.
Set a standard, drive the team on, and make noises at the team to ensure a certain level. But leave off the individuals. I can’t comment on Gary McSheffrey’s character in real-life – he could be right git for all I know. But when I saw him traipse off the Ricoh pitch the other day, all I saw was a bloke who’d just spent an hour running around with the frustration of things not working out for him – and thousands of people who are supposed to be on his side, turning on him too.
I felt for the guy. I don’t think anyone deserves that.
Except Hitler obviously, or one of those people who are rude and obnoxious on the bus.