Talk is cheap

by Paul Caulfield

In its early days, Radio 5’s 606 show was eagerly anticipated – an hour of quirky, incisive opinions and thoughtful comments. Often it was simply delight or disappointment at the day’s results, but stories of a referee sending off his own brother, or some particularly witty banter (and we’re not talking Mark Lawrenson here), brought a flavour of genuine fandom to proceedings.

The presence of Danny Baker, a man with a supporter’s eye for all levels of the game, encouraged a range of fans to phone in, and the programme benefitted.

That is, until a fateful night in 1997 when Chelsea beat Leicester in the FA Cup with a hotly-contested penalty. A furious Baker laid into the referee, shouted down callers who supported the ref’s decision, and raged at the show’s producer for letting them on air in the first place. It was disturbing but compelling stuff. The BBC, however, took exception and sacked him immediately, fearing, allegedly, that his comments might incite attacks on officials. Baker wasn’t unemployed for long. TalkSport swiftly hired him, no doubt impressed by his confrontational style.

One of Baker’s successors on 606 was Richard Littlejohn whose abrasive approach as a journalist was tempered by a tongue-in-cheek, gently provocative attitude to callers – particularly those with a knee-jerk response to one bad result. His incredulity at those broadcasting their disloyalty to clubs they allegedly supported was refreshing. As time went on however, the thoughtless abuse of managers and referees took up more of the show.

By the time Alan Green arrived, 606 had been stripped of anything approaching humour. “He’s lost the dressing room” and “He’s got to go” being the tired mantra of supporters unable to swallow a defeat and move on. Managers of course, were an easy target. But the people most abused during Green’s tenure, with the active encouragement of the host, were referees. Gradually, Green’s role as a catalyst for discussion changed to cheerleader for angry supporters. I know we’re going back a bit here, but his attitude during the 2006 World Cup was particularly one-eyed, with his abuse of Sven Goren Eriksson the low point.

After England had scraped a late win against Trinidad, Green’s strapline swiftly changed. “What did you think of that performance”, ran his introduction, with palpable disappointment that he could no longer criticise the result. The fact that England’s best World Cup in 1966 started in similar fashion was apparently irrelevant. Callers disputing this view were shouted down or cut off, as the presenter’s ego became the focus of the programme.

The truth is that good news or an alternative to the presenter’s view, is no longer a story in football. To suggest the opposite is to risk the studio “off” button. The presence of Robbie Savage on 606, initially at least, skewed the programme further. Savage, (lest we forget) had a reputation as the team irritant – the one who wound up refs and/or opponents for his own ends. Far from being Green’s foil on the programme, he swiftly became cheerleader to the cheerleader – egging on his mentor to higher levels of abuse. Thankfully, experience (and possibly ballroom dancing) has mellowed the man, who has developed a more tolerant streak.

Supporters hardly help themselves. Knee-jerk anger after a bad result produces abusive and borderline defamatory statements on fans messageboards. During Avram Grant’s unhappy tenure at West Ham, a supporters’ site (KUMB)
published some vitriolic abuse of the manager, along with crude remarks about his religion. Brickbats were fewer last season with the team chasing promotion, but a defeat at Ipswich provoked a vulgar attack on one player. And no, the use of asterisks doesn’t make it alright. Of course, West Ham fans are not the only ones to vent their spleen online.

Liverpool’s start to 2010-11 was their worst for fifty years, and the messageboard response on redandwhitekop.com was predictable. Mixed with realistic assessments of the Reds’ likely finish and pleas for loyalty were comments from one contributor berating the performance against Blackpool with the words “I’m so sick of losing”. And this, remember, was for less than half a season of misery, not the half century some fans have endured. It’s a similar story this season at Arsenal, who, at time of writing, have gone seven seasons without a trophy (my heart bleeds – not). A ‘Wenger Stay or Go’ thread was generated on arsenal-mania.com in early January and at 0-2 against Aston Villa in the Cup, even the well-heeled in the Emirates upper tier were getting mutinous. Many Gooners objected to the Alan-Greenisms aimed at Wenger from their own ranks, but it’s far too easy for people to complain.

Twenty years ago, before messageboards, twitter and Danny Baker, your average fan had to take the bad result and get on with life. Now you can whine 24-7. Surely there must be better things to do at 3.27am on Saturday morning.than discuss the potential sacking of your manager with half a dozen other saddoes? Obviously not, if you were a Blackburn fan on the Steve Kean thread of www.brfcs.co.uk (509 pages and counting).

While racist chanting has been targeted, other abuse, online, on-air and pitchside, is less publicised. If it was, and if managers and referees took the legal action they were entitled to, then supporters’ intolerance could be successfully challenged. One exception concerned Spurs fans at Fratton Park whose bad-mouthing of Sol Campbell was caught on camera. Four fans received three year banning orders in January 2009, though if the same rigour was applied across the country, magistrates would be snowed under. After all, with security cameras at some grounds that NASA would be proud of, there is no escape any more.

But as long as phone-ins and supporters’ websites follow the pattern of presenters motivated by their own prejudice, an unhealthy intolerance will persist, with potentially serious results for players and referees.

Author Info

Paul Caulfield

Freelance football writer with 25 years experience of preview and feature writing for listings magazines City Limits and Time Out, as well as 90 Minutes, Backpass and several non-League publications. I have focussed mainly on the non-League game in my magazine work, with online articles covering professional and international football. I also have experience as a club official with Clapton FC (of the Essex League), and learned the realities of running a club at that level.

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