Fans: stop your sobbing
TV ghouls, weeping fans - it must be relegation weekend.
TS Eliot once wrote that April is the cruellest month. But then, in his day, the football season probably ended earlier (I’m presuming here that Eliot was writing about football rather than, say, the moral collapse of Western civilisation). Nowadays May is crueller by far, the month when football fans suffer the anguish of final-day relegation.
This Sunday the stygian void of relegation beckons for four Premiership clubs, including my own team Crystal Palace. I’m sick of being told that the relegation dogfight is great entertainment for neutrals. For those of us who are directly affected it will be anything but entertaining, it will be 90 minutes of sheer, unadulterated agony. ‘I can give you all the bull you want…yeah I love it, it is great. But no, it’s crap, I hate it’, said Southampton boss Harry Redknapp after his side’s 4-3 win over relegation rivals Norwich. ‘Games like this must be fun for the neutrals. But there would be something wrong with any manager who enjoyed that.’
I find it particularly galling that, having been ignored by broadcasters for most of the season and usually allocated a token five minutes of highlights at the end of Match of the Day, suddenly our grim struggle for survival is the main attraction. On Sunday the broadcasters will for once ignore Chelsea or Arsenal and will focus instead on the plight of the relegation candidates. Of course, with the title already settled and the contest for UEFA cup places about as interesting as the general election, the only real drama will be at the bottom of the table. But while the newfound interest in the less glamorous teams is irritating, it’s the long, lingering close-up shots of tear-stained, grief-stricken fans that is downright sordid.
The past 10 years have seen a radical shift in the way football is televised. In the past the cameras were focused predominantly on the players. Shots of fans were confined in the main to long shots of the crowd celebrating a goal or a victory. Now the expressions on the faces of individual fans are an integral part of the TV spectacle. And it’s not just the ecstasy of a goal celebration that the TV directors want to capture. They’re just as likely to focus on the suffering of the losers, exemplified by the obligatory close-up weeping fan shot.
The key cultural moment that kickstarted this broadcasting trend was the Premiership game at St James’ Park on 14 March 1996, when Newcastle lost 1-0 to Manchester United and their distraught fans were famously caught blubbing on television. At the time rival supporters found this whole undignified episode highly amusing and taunted the lachrymose Geordies with chants of ‘crying on the telly, we saw you crying on the telly’. However, the age of emotionalism was upon us and the nation’s tear ducts were well and truly open. Eighteen months after that game, we witnessed ostentatious displays of public grief following the death of Princess Diana. Tony Blair’s quivering lip had replaced the traditional British stiff upper lip and consequently it was only a matter of time before grown men started shamelessly weeping at football matches.
It’s bad enough that football fans have CCTV cameras constantly trained on us to detect any illicit acts of over-exuberance. But now we also run the gauntlet of being caught on camera by TV broadcasters looking for desolate fans to satisfy their voyeuristic grief-fixation. No doubt there are plenty of exhibitionists who are only too happy to flaunt their emotions in public, but some of us still prefer to do our grieving in private. Last Saturday I was at Selhurst Park when Southampton scored a soul-destroying ninety-second minute equaliser against Palace. Naturally I was devastated and for a few seconds I sat there with my head in my hands. But then the fear of being featured on a Match of the Day grief shot kicked in and I quickly folded my arms and reverted to an emotionless stare (something that Palace fans do quite well after enduring so much mind-numbingly mediocre football over the years).
Of course, wearing my objective football writer’s hat (which, take careful note, is not one of those jester’s hats with bells on, in team colours), I grudgingly acknowledge that Sunday’s relegation scrap will provide great drama for neutrals. But ask yourself this: what kind of ghoulish neutrals derive entertainment from the suffering of their fellow men? If you are tempted to curl up on the sofa with a few beers and a bag of tortilla chips to enjoy the relegation struggle reach its denouement, then think again. There is a slippery slope that begins with watching a relegation drama and ends with you hanging around crematoriums and hospital wards. So please find something else to do on Sunday afternoon, and leave us to suffer our relegation anguish in peace.
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