After the game on Saturday, Kyle Walker received several abusive tweets and deleted his Twitter account. This sorry episode followed what is fast becoming a depressingly familiar pattern: player joins twitter. Fans welcome this and follow. We can interact with our heroes. This temporarily bucks the trend of increasing separation between Premier League clubs and their supporters. Fan insults player. Player says why do I bother. Player deletes account. Player more reluctant than ever to communicate.
The textspeak insults were pathetic and small-minded, like the people cowering behind the anonymity of cyberspace who posted them. Twitter is in a froth about it all, predictably. The good guys are trying to get Kyle to come back, although if he’s not on twitter, he won’t see it….
So what’s to be made of this? Reading some of the coverage, it feels like there’s been a cataclysmic rending of the Spurs firmament. Fans at each others’ throats. Players alienated from fans. Let’s have a go at the team while we’re about it. High up the league, fast improving, fine players but lose to a team racing clear at the top who spent more on three midfielders than the value of our team plus the bench and it’s AVB out, Walker out, Levy out. 606 is as unreliable a guide to opinion as Twitter, but a Spurs fan rang on Saturday to say precisely that, describing our performance as the worst he’d seen in 30 years. Couldn’t have been a real Spurs fan, then.
Twitter is a lot of fun but sometimes it suffers from delusions of grandeur. Designed as a method of conversation, it becomes reified into a self-contained universe. Not one conversation but the only conversation. The delusion is fed by a media hungry for opinions. It’s referenced with increasing frequency. Who needs a contact book compiled painstakingly over many years of scoop-seeking when you have a ready-made source of quotes at your fingertips, conveniently packaged into 140 character soundbites.
I trust those weasel misbegotten nogoodniks will crawl back under the stone from whence they came. It should be easy, they have no backbone. Back in the real world, after his dire error, the Shelf groaned then gave Kyle Walker a warm round of sympathetic applause from the Shelf. A few stood to emphasise the point that there’s a difference between a bad player and a player having a bad game. Loyal fans who put that mistake into context. The young full-back heard that and will remember long after Twitter becomes the MySpace of the next decade.
That context recognised instinctively by the Shelf is sadly lacking from the appreciation of many football fans these days, not just Spurs supporters. Devouring the game through television provides valuable insights but fundamentally distorts the nature and equilibrium of this finest of all sports. It’s safe to sit back and judge from the armchair gantry where everything is spread out before you. Slow it all down, watch a key incident 37 times from 6 different angles, only then decide a player’s ability. It fosters a culture of blame where perfection is the sole acceptable option and condemnation follows swiftly for anyone who dares to fall short.
This culture of unrealistic expectations distorts our entire perception of the game, of what clubs, players and referees for that matter are capable of. Nothing exists but the here and now. Spurs have a new manager and new players so why aren’t we top of the table? We’ve had several matches already. Just buy lots of players. It’s what other teams do. Refs are rubbish, even though we’ve seen an incident repeatedly and still can’t decide whether it’s a surefire penalty. Players are not all they are cracked up to be. Look, they make mistakes. Let’s get some stats to back it up.
Back in the real world, players’ form goes up and down. Hardly a staggering insight but in the universe of the unreal, it is forgotten far too frequently. The two finest midfielders I’ve seen at the Lane, Hoddle and Gascoigne, had more games when they were largely ineffective than glory games. It doesn’t diminish their stellar achievements one jot because that’s merely the nature of football. The way Ginola was lauded at half-time, you’d think he was Hod and Gazza rolled into one. I enjoyed watching him play, but just so you know, they show those goals against Barnsley and Leeds over and over partly because they are superb but mainly because there aren’t many others to choose from. For every moment where he turned a game there were twenty others where he slowed everything down intolerably or ran, however elegantly, into a blind alley.
In the real world, I’m fortunate enough to sit in row 14 of the Shelf, almost opposite the benches. The players are close, real-life flesh and blood, stained and steaming. When they hug the touchline, I can count the beads of sweat on their brow.
It’s a perspective that means I’m particularly close to wingers and full-backs. For that reason, I’m particularly fond of them. They can’t hide. I’m not seeing them through a prism of slowmos or tactics graphics. Right there. I see their faces and under pressure, I can see into their minds. I see elation, indifference and fear. Lots of fear, you’d be surprised. They cover it up but not from me.
So I see Kyle Walker as the most focussed and committed of Tottenham players. I am convinced of it. Towards the end of last season, he was knackered. Sure, I know they play once or twice a week, should be fit enough blah blah. But pounding up and down that wing, forward and back, being nudged and pulled and kicked, he was tired. His legs were plastered with support tape as if stuck together with sellotape. In a quiet moment, he would bend double to catch his breath.
And he did not stop. Over and over, his determination to overcome the pain in his legs and his guts kept him going. His determination to be a good professional. His dedication to the shirt. Our shirt.
Walker is not playing so well this season. His poor positional play is being found out. Late on Saturday I looked for his runs to support Lennon as we sought an equaliser but there was nothing. I don’t know what caused it but he was shot through. The England trip, a virus maybe but he was off-colour. During a lull, he went to the bench, ostensibly for a drink but taking on liquid that late will have no effect whatsoever on his body. He needed a boost, words of soothing reassurance to quell his anxiety.
Exhaustion seeps from muscle to mind and when called into action next he made two horrendous mistakes in as many seconds and they scored their fourth. He made one final dash upfield in desperate atonement, stiff-legged and too late. Instinct propelled him forward.
Kyle Walker is not a bad player, he’s a fine footballer who is not playing well. He’s young and will learn. His pace gets him out of trouble most of the time but not always. Defenders need games to add positional nouse to their talents. He will succeed and but he has nothing to prove to me. I know he plays for the shirt.
Thanks to my cyberpal the @Lustdoctor. Blog in the blogroll to your right. Essential. Our conversation on twitter generated some ideas for this piece. Oh the irony.
Football On My Mind is an occasional series of articles about current events in the game, not just about Spurs. Endlessly curious, it’s called On My Mind because it is, always.
Last week England manager Roy Hodgson committed what appears to be a cardinal sin in contemporary football. He gave an honest answer to a question from a fan.
Hodgson has been accused of being at the very least naive and at worst of crass stupidity. He’s since apologised but it’s not entirely clear for what exactly. Certainly Rio Ferdinand should have been the first to know that he was not selected for the forthcoming England squad. Any leader worth their salt knows that honesty and trust are powerful motivators, whether the organisation be a charity like the one I manage, a private company or a football team. While the defender’s omission is hardly a surprise, least of all to him I suspect, this apparent breach of duty will reverberate through the rest of the squad. I doubt it will have any immediate noticeable effect but they won’t forget when times are tough and their manager calls for trust in his methods.
In many ways Hodgson presents as a man out of time, a relic even, although this serves to mask a comprehensive understanding of the modern game. It’s hard to imagine him as a young man. He was born an avuncular uncle figure. There’s a comfortable stability in his old-fashioned values of hard work, footballers doing their best and an integrity born of working with players and an endless fascination with the game itself. Most of the time this continuity with the past is reassuring in a time of rapid change and short attention spans and it’s not as if he bangs on about the good old days all the time as many younger pundits choose to do. Roy will never be a trendy uncle, perish the thought that he will lose his charm, but he looks forward as well as back and his broad-minded approach to innovation probably held back his career in England.
The old days were never as good as many would have you believe. Hodgson’s apparent wish that John Terry should be found not guilty by a court or the FA smacks of the unwritten football code of silence, what happens on the pitch stays on the pitch, superseding the imperative to counter racism in all its guises. However, communicating with the supporters is a fundamental element of that old-school attitude and there’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever. Hodgson wants to talk football and does not think he is above the fans, whereas many professionals treat us with barely concealed contempt. The yawning gap between fans and the clubs to which they have devoted a large part of their lives has created a growing sense of alienation that is destined to cause irrevocable harm to the game as a whole unless it is challenged.
These days the them and us attitude prevails. Many Premier League clubs do their utmost to control the contact between their staff and the fans. We faithfully turn up and the only communication is one-way via our bank accounts. Perish the thought that we may wish to interact in any other way. Even in the media, the pundits, paid handsomely to talk, barely disguise their contempt for the task of communicating. And all this is accepted by the producers and directors who tolerate vapid platitudes or, in the case of Mark Lawrenson during Euro 2012, apparent disdain for football itself.
The England manager does something about it, in his own small way. He’s on the tube, not a limo or even a cab, knowing he will be recognised. When he is, he’s happy to talk openly about the game he loves, knowing that fans share that passion. He’s not different because of his status, he’s the same as us. Passionate after all these years about the game we love.
So he talks and ends up all over the back pages because in return for his openness, someone calls the tabloids. No doubt they are boasting to their mates about it and they have trousered a few hundred quid in return.
Hodgson will never be as straightforward again with the public and it’s a reminder to everyone else in the business to keep mouthing the dull platitudes. Keep to themselves any real opinions, anything of any vague interest or that may be marginally different from what anyone else is saying. Perhaps I’m the one who is now being naive in believing there is any such thing as a private conversation any longer.
Uncle Roy was young once. He used to play for Tonbridge Angels, now in the Conference South. I went to see them 10 days ago. My wife’s nephew was mascot. After the game, all the players gathered in the club lounge and happily posed for pictures, chatted to supporters and signed autographs. As the match finished, the away team fans huddled behind the goal. Nothing sinister here – they had been joined by Sutton’s manager who talked to them about the club’s current problems. He gave them bad news, they gave him a round of applause.
This contact is why more fans are turning their backs on the big clubs. It’s not the same in the Premier League but it is possible to work much harder to close the gap between fans and clubs. Hodgson was naive but like any relationship, it works both ways. Perhaps we get the game we deserve.