April 21, 2015 at 1:12 pm

Modern Football Fans and Why I’m Still Backing Brendan Rodgers

Brendan-Rodgers-Liverpool1

Joy. Outrage. Hope. Despair. There isn’t a football fan alive who could claim they haven’t felt all these emotions. Whether it is the elation felt seeing your team win, a tear shed when a club legend says his goodbyes or anger at Glen Johnson being inexplicably named on the team sheet once again, football is a sport fuelled by a repetitive cycle of emotions.

We hope that the people making the decisions dictating our teams’ fortunes are able to distance themselves enough to make objective decisions, while simultaneously demanding that they love the club like we do and share our pain when we lose. As much as the success he brought, one of the reasons Bill Shankly is still revered as a demigod on Merseyside was his ability to articulate to fans that winning and losing meant as much to him as it did them. Shanks “kicked every ball” and would, to mangle a Rodgersism, fight for the club as if his life depended on it. In a world where top football managers are paid millions it’s far harder to express those sentiments without coming across as corny, and Brendan Rodgers early, perhaps foolish attempts to do so still prejudice him to many sections of the club’s support today.

Much has changed since the times of Shankly and Busby, and even more over the past 30 years. Top footballers today earn more in a single season than most of us will in a lifetime. It seems obvious that this fuels a rage when fans are disappointed that didn’t exist in the past when players weren’t so alienated from fans by a buffer of vast wealth and celebrity. The elite clubs’ ability to spend massive amounts means they can negate innovative work done by competitors behind the scenes with just a couple of huge signings. It means that as soon as smaller clubs’ strategies start to bear fruit, bigger clubs come along and pick the ripest before their projects are realised. If you think it’s hard being a Liverpool fan, imagine being a West Ham, Southampton or Leeds fan, consistently (for a period at least in the case of each example here) developing young talents who could evolve into a great team, only to see larger clubs pluck them away one by one.

Add feelings of injustice and disenfranchisement to the list.

This time last year even those who had spent the last twelve months calling Brendan Rodgers a fraud were holding their hands up and replacing their slurs with words like “genius” and “mastermind”. Liverpool’s young manager had allowed us to dream again and dream we did. Those of us old enough to remember Liverpool’s last league title and before knew how much it meant to see our club back at the top of the pile with just a few games to go. Twenty-five years of disappointment had made even the most optimistic Reds cautious of indulging their own hopes but now, finally, England’s top division feared Liverpool again.

Just twelve months on and it’s hard to find anyone still prepared to back the manager who did all that. While some fans struggle to come to terms with the disappointments of this season after the so-nearly elation of the last, I’m left bemused not by the team’s regression this year, but by how depraved and short-sighted football fandom has become. There was a time when it was understood that, in football especially, it is sometimes necessary to take a step backward before leaping two more ahead; that talented people undertaking challenging projects can have difficult periods and make mistakes before eventually fulfilling their ambitions, and that patience is a virtue.

In an era of £80m transfers, 24/7 news coverage and the relentless connectivity of Twitter, however, years are reduced to minutes and everything has to be now – and even if you give us what we want now we’ll want more by tomorrow.

Once upon a time local fans that went to games made up a significant proportion of clubs’ support. Supporting a team was more than a hobby, it was being part of a community that linked in to a wider community beyond that which has long since disappeared. Even if their team lost, fans could still enjoy the sense of togetherness and take something from the game more important than winning or losing: each other. So many old football songs are about community rather than glory. It isn’t “Oh when the Saints go marching in I want to see us win or else”. It isn’t about winning at all. Liverpool’s famous anthem has nothing to do with success and everything about banding together in times of adversity. Be in that number. You’ll never walk alone. Togetherness. Hope. A feeling that no matter what happens on the pitch, we’ll always have each other. We’ll enjoy the good times and sing our way through the bad.

Sack the manager. Fraud! How times have changed.

Today the match-going fans make up a tiny proportion of Liverpool’s support. Those who do ‘go the game’ were still singing “Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool we’re on our way to glory” at the last home game while, online, anyone still backing the manager is treated with absolute disdain. Football is now entertainment and nothing else, and losing doesn’t entertain us. This is especially true when we consume the sport from too far away to enjoy other aspects of being a supporter. Rival fans who used to clash briefly before, during and after matches are now at loggerheads constantly online. For fans who perhaps invest too much of their identity in the arbitrary support of a team to which they have little material link, bragging rights mean everything. If you dared to dream last year you are likely taking a pasting from rival fans right now, even if you both live in London, or France, or Malaysia.

None of this is to disparage fans who support clubs far away from where they live. I am one of those fans too, but the nature of supporting a team and how we relate to our team’s successes and failures have warped massively. Fans today often seem to take their team losing as a personal grievance. It’s not just a case of thinking a manager is substandard or a player not up to it, instead criticism takes the form of character assassination, ridicule, hate and abuse. Nor am I trying to blame these things on the internet. The net might fuel the flames of hate and anger but it doesn’t light the spark.

It’s long been pointed out that men who normally do anything to hide their emotions will openly weep and hug one-another at a football match, so perhaps in a time when few think there is a recourse to justice and widespread doubt in the ability to affect change through voting, venting anger and calling for a manager to be sacked is a displacement of emotions from people suffocated by a feeling of impotence.

I wanted to write something about why I am still backing Rodgers when so few others are. I thought about writing a piece methodically taking on each argument for his dismissal one by one; countering shouts that he has “spent millions” by pointing out that our rivals who started with better squads than the one Rodgers has inherited have spent more over the same time period. I’d suggest that losing arguably the best two strikers in Europe last season for almost all of this was a massive blow few managers could overcome. I might point to how young our squad is, how difficult it is to finish in the top four without a bottomless pit of cash or how, realistically, fifth is actually par for a club with the fifth largest wage bill.

But as with politics, facts aren’t very effective for changing people’s minds about football. People are very good at finding evidence to support an already held view but not so good at updating our views when presented with evidence that undermines them. Reason, it seems, is not so much a counterbalance to what we feel emotionally, but a process of justifying our passions through argumentation. We don’t change our minds, instead we gather up the morsels that support our case and discount those that ought to scupper it.

So I won’t waste time making the case for a long term approach bound to include setbacks along the way. I won’t go into detail about how the popular saviours-elect Benitez and Klopp are currently failing to live up to expectations at the clubs they currently manage, as rational as those arguments may be. Instead I will appeal to fans to think about how much of how they are feeling about a game is actually about them. How much is your knee-jerk instinct to call for the manager’s head about your own ability to deal with disappointment? How much is your anger towards Rodgers really about the ridicule you’ve endured over the last year from rival fans who remember you dreaming twelve months ago? How much of your impatience is because you won the league five seasons running on FIFA, or Football Manager, or whatever the game is now?

Because when you take the emotion out of it and look at the bigger picture; when you accept that Liverpool Football Club is not one of the four richest clubs in the Premier League, that we have a team comprised largely of young players still developing while Chelsea and Man City have squads full of world class talents and when you recall, if you can, that just 12 months ago we were playing football so good that you needed to be well into your 30s to remember better, it looks like many of us are all too ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Last season raised fan expectations way out of proportion, mine included. Football is a game of emotions and that is exactly how it ought to be, but the history of football is littered with examples of managers sacked too soon as well as some who were given the time to build great teams after slow or stuttered starts.

If Liverpool sack Brendan Rodgers we won’t suddenly have the finances to compete with Chelsea, or Man City, or Man United or even Arsenal. Jurgen Klopp may well be a better manager than Brendan Rodgers, but his league titles and Champions League finals haven’t helped him to save Dortmund from a torturous season this year. It’s very easy to point to managers who have won things in the past and assume that their prior glories will guarantee success in the future, but at some point those winners had no trophies to their names and it was clubs and their fans’ patience and trust that gave them the opportunity to show what they were capable of.

Even if a sugar daddy were to buy Liverpool tomorrow, FFP means that their ability to bankroll success would be limited. There are no quick fixes. Liverpool fans need to make peace with the reality that the club has no right to win and accept that, given the superior squads and deeper pockets of our rivals, the only route to the top is a long and arduous one. If we sack the manager every time there’s a downturn in results we will just reset the progress and commit ourselves to the same cycle of emotions we’ve been going through for years: hope, expectation, disappointment, anger.

I don’t want to go through all that for another 30 years with joy only flickering into my reality once a decade, so instead I’d like to try something different. I’d like to give a manager who confounded all the critics last year an opportunity to show that it wasn’t all down to one player who could barely score under the previous manager. I’d like to see what might happen if we stick to our guns and give our young squad time to mature together. And if Rodgers is sacked and Klopp replaces him, I’d like to afford him that same patience. (I wonder how long it would be before some of those calling for his appointment would be calling for his head, too.)

Not because I lack ambition; quite the opposite. I’m prepared to go through a few more years of struggle because I want to see Liverpool back at the top, not just for one season, but for many seasons, and I know that when you don’t have the greatest means, achieving great things requires a radical dedication, perseverance and patience.

Beyond the minutiae of arguments for and against, the reality of our predicament looms, bleak but pregnant with opportunity. We can’t buy the best team, but with a healthy crop of young, gifted footballers emerging and a manager as good as any in the game at nurturing young talents, given enough time we have a chance. Let’s give Brendan Rodgers one more season. You have a whole lifetime after that to hate him.

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