I’ve never understood booing. A kind of ape-like whoop to signal distaste that, other than in football grounds and the more theatrical sessions of PMQs, was last seen in a non-ironic sense in the days of Vaudeville.
Yet it bizarrely continues at grounds around the country every week.
Whilst booing the referee or a polarising opposition player is all part of the theatrics, when fans turn this booing on their own players it takes on a more unpleasant tone.
One only needs look at the tetchy reaction of parts of the Barclay and Snake Pit to Jacob Murphy screwing a shot miles wide at the end of last season to see the effect. Because of that Alan Irvine held back the debuts of James Maddison and Ben Godfrey because he couldn’t trust that the volatile nature of Carrow Road wouldn’t be turned on either of them.
Shouting at players playing badly is pointless. They’re not trying to play badly. In 30-odd years of following Norwich I can only think of two occasions where having a pop at one of our players has seemed justified:
Carrow Road, as one, telling Keith O’Neill that going on Soccer AM and saying that the best thing about Norwich was the road to London was not widely appreciated, was the first. And Lewis Grabban’s railway adventures in Rotherham was the other, although his subsequent banishment to the reserves for several weeks meant that he avoided receiving the wrath that his disrespectful attitude probably deserved.
The general moans and groans are reserved for the odd poor piece of play, a striker missing a sitter, a defender gifting the opposition a goal with a dodgy back pass, and are directly related to that incident, so it’s not usually the same player getting stick all the time. If they were then usually the manager wouldn’t be picking them as the issues would be as obvious to them as they are to us.
There are some occasions though, when a player gets booed before a ball has been kicked, as their name is read out at the start of the game. I feel for these guys, but usually these boos are not directed at them, but at the decision to play them by the manager.
It’s a subtle distinction, and one perhaps the players wouldn’t appreciate as the announcement of their name draws the kind of groan usually reserved for a cup game at Portman Road going to extra time when the regulars realise they have to watch for half an hour more. But it’s the manager that is really the focal point of the ire.
The players that I can recall over the years receiving the collective groan from the word go are not always the worst players. Daryl Sutch, Andy Hughes, Carl Robinson, and Gary Holt were all honest hardworking players who did good things in their time. But the reason they met with disapproval was that when going through bad patches the manager stuck with them. And when they played badly again, they still stuck with them. Over and over again, past all point of logic and loyalty.
Which is where giving the manager the benefit of the doubt gives way to letting them know vocally that their repeated choice is not approved of.
Usually these players are strong characters. First on the training pitch and last off. A good influence in the dressing room. Someone the manager relies upon. Someone who has probably shown the manager loyalty which they, in turn, want to repay by sticking by them when they’re having a bad time.
Except it can become a vicious cycle. Most players don’t thrive and turn it around in that situation. And many managers refuse to be told what to do by the crowd and stubbornly keep selecting them anyway. Stalemate.
Usually, when it reaches this stage, the writing is on the wall for the manager. If the crowd are turning on their decisions things will already be bad. One underperforming player gets mostly forgotten about if the team is winning regardless. But when the manager is picking a player for reasons other than merit in a losing team, it usually signals the end.
All of which concerns me in our current situation.
We had a pre-match booing of a player last season. Just once and not particularly loud, but enough to resonate with the player. Having had a decent start under Alan Irvine, City had pulled off an all-too-familiar capitulation on a dismal Wednesday night at Huddersfield littered with the usual defensive mistakes.
Russell Martin was wheeled out to do the post-match “We know that’s not acceptable” speech that he’s had to do at grounds up and down the country for most of his time as captain. We’d heard it all before, he’d said it all before, it was depressing, and by Saturday anger levels had peaked.
When Russell’s name was read out he got booed. Whether in reaction to the post-match party-line “sorry we did it again” or him being seen as an “establishment” figure at the club to act as a lightning rod for the dissatisfaction is unclear.
The main culprits at Huddersfield, McGovern and Bennett had been benched so perhaps he was the next best option?
Of course, City responded that day with a 7-1 annihilation of Reading and when Martin scored he gave a full on “let’s hear you now” gesture to the Barclay, which divided opinion as to its appropriateness, although most understood how he must have felt. The fact that selecting Russ had become divisive was registered though.
Fast forward to current day and The Webberlution is in full swing. Daniel Farke’s brave new world is taking shape. Everything the fans had hoped for in terms of squad overhaul and new thinking is progressing well. A sense of unity between players, staff and fans had been tenuously stitched together by months of patient PR from Webber, underpinned by popular and correct decisions.
And then along came a piece by Russell Martin in the EDP last week. It was primarily a “looking forward to getting back to work” piece to coincide with the players return to training. But the tone from Martin was bullish, decrying the “keyboard warriors” who have criticised him before (guilty as charged), and pointing out that all our recent managers have consistently selected him.
He even highlighted his selection in the “Team of the Season” from a few years ago, which was disturbingly reminiscent of Alex Neil mocking detractors last season because he was given Manager of the Month a short while ago. Martin came across as a man very much determined to shut people up with his performances in the coming season and very confident that he would be given the platform to do so.
Yesterday it was confirmed, courtesy of a contract extension, that Russ is here for the foreseeable. And as much as I question his ability as a centre-back and his own sense of self-belief, as a captain and a representative of the club he’s outstanding.
The gestures towards the family of Peter Oldfield, a sadly-departed mainstay of the Carrow Road match day staff after the Reading game, were rightly praised, but by all accounts were the tip of the iceberg in terms of all he does as a leader behind the scenes as well as on the pitch.
Russell Martin, the man, is a class act, and we should not forget that.
And Webber and Farke have clearly bought into the man. It’s easy to do. He’s intelligent, articulate and has all the intangible leadership qualities that most players can only dream of. But does that mean rather than replace the whole of the centre of defence as many fans were hoping to do, we persevere with Martin? He’s a leader and communicator after all.
‘He’ll look after Angus Gunn. We need some continuity after all’.
You can hear people talking themselves into it. Hell, even I can see the logic. But…
Fast forward to Craven Cottage on August 5. Russ at captain and centre-back again, as seems most likely at this stage. If City win, fine, everyone’s happy. But if we lose and Russell has “one of those days” and is responsible for a goal or two, what then?
“New regime, same old problems”
“Martin’s rubbish but he’s undroppable”
It won’t take long before the boos come out again, and Farke is forced to face a difficult situation involving his skipper. It would be an absolutely devastating blow to the club if all the goodwill built up so far since Webber came on board was undone by something as simple as this but it’s sitting right here in front of us like a rabbit in the headlights.
I don’t want the rabbit to get hit. I want someone to pick it up and pop it gently on the side of the road.
The best thing Daniel Farke could do for Martin would be to retain him as club captain (which he’s done) and name a new team captain for the season. Don’t play him at the start of the season. Play Klose and A.N. Other, or two A.N. Others.
But show that the team isn’t built around, and for, Russell Martin. If, after five games, a centre-back gets injured and Russ comes back in for them, then the crowd won’t bat an eyelid. If he keeps his place on merit they’ll be fine with that.
Yet I really hope DF doesn’t hitch his wagon, hook, line and sinker on Russ. Because with the best will in the world, his credit with many fans is not good right now.
Select him on merit alone. Ironically there’s a good chance he’ll play well this season, with better defensive coaching and potential new partners who aren’t scarred by years in the yellow trenches. He was easily our most consistent centre-back last season, but to be fair that’s a bar set so low that a snake in a bomb crater would struggle to get under it.
For me he remains too personally linked to past failures, both personal and collective though, and what this budding new squad needs to remain is fresh, and with the feeling that anything is possible and the problems of old aren’t going to hold us back.
In keeping with our new sponsors, the fans have bought in. Let’s not create an avoidable situation where they cash out too soon.