Kick public weeping out of football

The modern trend for emotionalism is even infecting football fans. And it ain’t pretty.

Duleep Allirajah

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Topics Politics

On Sunday 11 May the English Premier League reached its nail-biting, nerve-fraying, conclusion. And when the fat lady sang at 5pm, West Ham United were relegated and their supporters wept like girls (though in fairness some of them were girls).

But it wasn’t always thus. Sure, football fans have always shed the odd tear, but it’s only in recent years that close-up camera shots of crying supporters have become standard practice. The Guardian’s Jim White recently made the point that if you look back at old editions of Match of the Day before the 1980s the camera did not focus on the manager.

White suggests that one of the reasons why the anguished manager shot has become an essential part of televised football today is that we ‘have become increasingly aware of the toll that these men’s profession is taking on their physical health’ (1). This is true. In our therapeutic times we have become as fascinated with the suffering of our sports stars as with their sporting feats.

Much the same can be said of the now obligatory shots of weeping football fans. It was Gazza who opened the emotional floodgates when he famously wept before a world audience at Italia 90. However, we can thank the Toon Army for making tears on the terraces fashionable among supporters.

In the 1995/6 season Newcastle United famously threw away a 14-point lead at the top of the Premier League and handed the title to Manchester United. On 14 March 1996, in a game that arguably changed the season, Manchester United scraped a 1-0 victory at St James’ Park, a result that stunned the Newcastle fans, many of whom were caught shamelessly sobbing on camera. In the weeks that followed, as the championship slipped away from Newcastle’s grasp, you only had to point a TV camera at a Geordie and he would burst into tears on cue.

Weeping at football might have originated among our Geordie cousins but it wasn’t long before the affliction jumped the species barrier and infected football supporters throughout Britain. Soon everybody wanted a piece of the grief action. When Tony Blair performed his quivering lip routine after Diana’s death it was evident that the traditional stiff upper lip had given way to rampant emotionalism. It was now okay for grown men to cry in public.

‘Everybody hurts’ droned REM’s Michael Stipe, and that is nowhere better illustrated than in the annual end-of-season displays of football-related mourning. Last week we watched tearful Gooners grieving the loss of the Premiership title, red-eyed Brighton fans facing up to life in Division Two, and Exeter supporters crestfallen at relegation from the Football League.

It’s easy to see why TV directors can’t resist zooming in on the agonised faces of football supporters. The shot of a fat bloke in a replica shirt bawling his eyes out says ‘despair’ more eloquently than Peter Drury or Clive Tyldesley’s commentaries ever could. But there is something rather sordid, pornographic even, about the way the camera lingers on the faces of red-eyed, grief-stricken fans. It is televised football’s equivalent of the cum shot. Intruding on someone else’s personal grief might make for powerful TV, but do we really need to see it? Some things, such as grown men blubbering like babies, are better left to the imagination.

But the weeping fan is not simply a media construction. In defeat most fans will instinctively head straight for the exits, but there are always a few grief exhibitionists who deliberately stay behind to strike dejected poses for the cameras. Personally I have no time for these cry-babies. Where is their dignity? Forget racist chanting, where is the campaign to kick public weeping out of football? It is an unpleasant, self-indulgent habit that should be discouraged.

Thankfully, although TV pictures of weeping fans invite us to feel their pain, there is an admirably callous streak in terrace culture that remains impervious to such emotionalism. Last week West Ham’s caretaker boss Trevor Brooking said that ‘every neutral in the country wants us to stay up’. Really? Is that why, throughout the game, Birmingham City fans mercilessly taunted the Hammers about their impending relegation? I’d wager that for every neutral who shared West Ham’s pain there were a dozen more who had a damn good laugh about it.

In 1997 Crystal Palace beat Sheffield United in the First Division play-off final courtesy of a last-minute goal. The next time the two teams met the Palace fans sang ‘Did you cry at Wem-ber-lee?’. Maybe if all tearful fans were pitilessly ridiculed in this fashion we might put an end to the pernicious epidemic of public weeping once and for all.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Who’d be a football manager?, Guardian, 23 April 2003

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