Monday 11 December 2017

Richard Sadlier: Fans always heard but they're rarely listened to

Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

On the off-chance there are people still in the dark on this, professional footballers don't believe they owe everything to supporters.

Ignore all public comments to the contrary. They don't think their livelihoods are dependent on decent people spending their hard-earned wages on match tickets and replica shirts. They don't all cherish the input of fans as they sometimes make out. Many supporters I know think they have a handle on the game, but that's not how things are viewed from inside the dressing room.

Rafa Benitez did a very rare thing in football. He spoke out honestly about how he saw the behaviour of the fans since he arrived at Chelsea. He didn't sugar-coat his views with patronising platitudes, he simply called it as he saw it. It may have been building up inside him since the day he was appointed, but he let it all out on Wednesday evening. And he was completely right in everything he said.

There is a discrepancy between the power supporters have and the knowledge they are perceived to have. It's not that they don't have a right to their views or a right to express them, it's that they're often seen as completely ill-informed. Playing experience is the only barometer of expertise to many footballers, so the views of those who have never played are often dismissed. Rarely have I heard players refer to journalists as people who know the game, and I doubt I've ever heard that said genuinely about fans.

The problem is there is a conceit in football that the fans' views have weight. While the reality is that clubs and managers cannot be sustained long-term without their support, their opinions and actions are often derided from within. They are not considered fully informed so are often largely ignored. The difference between supporters' influence and their true level of understanding of how the game works is why most dressing rooms view them with suspicion and contempt. Just like the media, fans are arrogantly dismissed as having far more power than insight.

There were few things I found more annoying than being told by strangers that they paid my wages. It was inherently true, obviously, but it was always the most self-righteous type who would come out with it. But when players look at their wage slips, they don't all join together to praise the generosity and sacrifice of the fans. When training is particularly enjoyable, there is no mention of the debt that is owed to the paying public for the privilege of being there. Players from previous eras can speak about what it was like in their day but it was never like this when I played. I've seen no signs that it has changed since then either.

I have many memories of cursing fans in private. Some of it was because of abuse that was aimed at me personally, and a lot of it was for the stick they gave to the entire team when things were going against us. At no point did I feel I should be honest in public, but I often wondered how those fans thought we were speaking about them in private. Chelsea fans would not have appreciated Benitez's comments, but only the most deluded could have disagreed with what he said.

The right to say what you like at a game doesn't mean that everything you come out with is going to be appreciated and respected by players. Having a lifelong affinity for your club does not mean your actions will always be in its best interest. Even if all your time and money is spent supporting a club, there's still no guarantee that your presence at a game is welcomed by all. Benitez drew attention to some Chelsea fans, but there are examples of it everywhere.

The wider issue is whether he was right to have spoken out, but there is no debating the validity in what he said. Calling for fans to take responsibility for their own actions is perfectly legitimate. Of course they have affected performances by behaving in the way that they have. Obviously, making banners to mock a recently appointed interim manager is a waste of time and counter-productive. It's hard to listen to their complaints given how they have acted.

Those Chelsea fans have undermined Benitez and the players from day one, so it's irrelevant whether they've paid for their ticket or what they think of their club. Benitez should not be the focus of their anger. The club has been seen as a laughing stock since long before his appointment, and will stay that way as long as Abramovich remains. No vile chants or banners will change that fact.

Irish Independent

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