It wasn’t nice. The treatment of the England team and Gareth Southgate by their own fans at Molineux on Tuesday was loud, consistent and, in the words of those there, quite “unsavoury”. There has been debate over whether it was right or wrong (full disclosure: I am in the wrong wrong wrong camp). But perhaps we should also wonder a little more as to why it happened in the first place.
First and most obviously, the performance was just poor. From Aaron Ramsdale’s goalkeeping to John Stones’s defending, Bukayo Saka being a yard off everything and Harry Kane making a fool of himself in an attempt to earn his second soft penalty of the international break, none of it was good on the eye. As Southgate acknowledged, expectations of this England team have been raised and at Molineux – over two internationals – they weren’t met.
Then there’s the relationship with Southgate himself. Likely there are some England supporters who don’t like the manager any more because of his support for the taking of the knee. He not only defended his players over their decision to protest against systemic racism but vocally advocated for it. You can imagine the home secretary might have been put off by that, if no one else.
Then there’s the argument about the handbrake, the boring football, the failure to make the most of the £100m Manchester City squad player Jack Grealish. This is a legitimate complaint (if wrong-headed in the views of others – ie me) and one that has been hyped up on talk radio and social media for more than a year. It was always going to bubble over at some point. And some of this thinking (especially the boring bit?) appears quite transmissible – even 2,000 children felt it was appropriate to boo after the 0-0 draw with Italy.
We are past peak waistcoat, that much seems sure. But it’s also worth noting that the celebration of Gareth Southgate was a real thing and lasted for a long time, at least two years. It was the sort of treatment that is hardly usual for an England manager in any shape or form. Ask Graham Taylor if he would have appreciated such hero worship and surely he would not have not liked that.
Southgate has been around long enough for fans to see the limitations, but also to compare and contrast him with other successful football managers in this country. Simon Chadwick is the global professor of sport at Em Lyon Business School and often pops up in articles such as this one because he’s a provocative thinker about the game. He observes that, as much as Southgate may be the one, he’s still not a Pep Guardiola or a Jürgen Klopp.
“If you think of the top two teams in the country right now, Manchester City and Liverpool, they share a philosophy that’s very much based on performance with passion,” Chadwick says. “Klopp, in particular, is almost everybody’s embodiment of what you would want a football manager to be: really in tune with fans and with players, he really seems to care.
“In terms of personality and approach it is almost like Southgate is a man out of time. He has a sanitised approach to management and, in English terms, if you go back 10 years that may well have been acceptable. But Premier League football has overtaken him. He needs to be seen running up and down the touchline jumping in the air and shouting, going and getting drunk with the players, because that’s what Guardiola and Klopp do and have instilled within observers and fans of football.”
Chadwick’s insight leads to another thought, one about identity. Loud booing of the team you’re supposed to support is hardly limited to the national team. It’s a source of frustration for some (me!) that your average Premier League XI get booed as a matter of course. This activity can be seen as revealing of the distance between fans and well-paid players, that anything other than perfect fails to justify mind-boggling wages. It could also be that the bond is too tight, that people now invest so much in their identity as a fan that every failure is taken personally. This is compounded when it’s England: it’s not just you but your country that’s been slighted.
It wouldn’t be 2022 if there weren’t a digital piece to the puzzle too. There’s an argument that says the lack of temperance common to online exchanges is seeping into the real world, that Southgate and his men simply received in real life what they would otherwise get on Twitter. Chadwick sees that point but understands it more as part of the basic premise of the modern internet, where we as consumers have a function commenting on others’ work.
“We’re all co-creators online, whether it be on Twitter, Facebook or TikTok,” Chadwick says. “We live in an age where we make a contribution, we are co-creators of the product. If one element of that product, the on-field game, falls short of standards then we contribute to the further creation of the product by reflecting the poor quality of the experience that we’re getting. We live in an experience economy, and we know that on social media we will object and complain about football. What I think we’re beginning to see is that kind of co-creation of the experience also beginning to take place in the stadium.”
You may not agree with all or any of these ideas, and there are other possible explanations out there (we’re fed up with everything, not just the football, being one). If too much booing is a bad thing, we need to ask why it is happening in order to understand it better, though. If, that is, we agree that it’s bad in the first place.