Booing season seems to come round quicker each year. The hazy days of summer (the haze being that which descends on the brains of supporters and convinces them of future success) have given way to the long nights of winter and a soundtrack of howling and hollering.
Most Premier League teams have walked off the pitch to jeers at some point, but the match between West Ham and Arsenal on Monday was a special example of the form. At half-time, with West Ham 1-0 up and Arsenal winless in the league since the beginning of October, travelling Gunners fans gave their team what for. At full-time, with Arsenal having effected a three-goal turnaround and West Ham a point off the relegation zone, it was the home supporters hollering and howling.
What do people hope to achieve when they boo their own team? It’s a question that gets to the heart of the modern supporter’s malaise, the ails that afflict those who pay money to watch their team. The answer has something to do with disenfranchisement and frustration, but it’s not just that. It’s something more nebulous, and possibly contradictory too.
Let’s start by looking at the most straightforward reason for booing players you profess to support; that by doing so you hope to improve their performance. A well-rounded boooo should convey directly to an underachieving team that their performance is unacceptable and persuade them to set about doing better. Right?
“It’s unclear,” is the answer from the sports psychologist Josephine Perry. “It depends on personal mentality and personal characteristics. Some athletes might use [booing] as fuel to fire themselves up. They might work from a “prove them wrong” perspective which, on that day, could be helpful. For others, those worried about their place on the team or those who like to please people, to hear the crowd booing could throw their whole game off.”
Furthermore, says Perry, even those of the ‘“prove them wrong” mindset can’t keep it up forever. “Most athletes are an outlier,” she says. “You don’t get to be elite if you are like the rest of us. But, as a human being, it is going to be very difficult if every time you step out on a pitch it’s made clear that people don’t like you..”
So if you’re wanting to improve performance, booing is not very effective. What’s more, it’s so indiscriminate as to be confusing; even if the players or coach get the message that something needs to change, what is that thing? When Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka was hectored from every side of the Emirates Stadium when substituted against Crystal Palace in October, was it because of his performance, the team’s, or his response to being booed in the first place?
Booing has a messy outcome but perhaps a messy input, too. Another straightforward explanation for booing, sometimes used as a justification, is that fans have paid lots of money to watch and will not stay quiet if they feel shortchanged. In the past, the argument goes, they might have kept shtum but the contemporary nature of football means they feel less like a vital part of a collective endeavour and more like customers. And customers complain when they don’t get what they want. That argument seems convincing, until you start to ask what it is that people want.
Tim Stillman, the respected Arsenal blogger, wrote a long and interesting piece in the wake of the Xhaka incident trying to get to the bottom of his feelings on the matter. Stillman wrote that although he was against booing any Arsenal players, the barracking of Xhaka had “worked” because it had got him dropped. What’s more, Stillman wrote, while he was against the practice he had come to understand it was really only by a matter of degrees and that he understood every fan had “red lines” which, if crossed, lead to vocal eruption.
You might argue over whether getting your captain dropped is really a desirable outcome but surely Stillman is bang on with his red lines theory. I too am an anti-booer, but when I was at West Ham against Newcastle last month and the Hammers crowd turned on their team at half-time I found myself in complete sympathy. West Ham were 2-0 down but more galling for me was an apparent lack of effort.
Effort, or the perceived lack of it, turns out to be my red line. What is more, I had no clue how much of a shift the West Ham players were putting in. I didn’t know whether they were trying but failing, conserving energy, acting on instructions or, genuinely, refusing to pull their finger out. I didn’t pause to consider, because my buttons had been pushed.
So what if booing is less about trying to achieve a specific end, and more about releasing something from inside yourself. Perry talks of a “contagion effect”, where people jeer because those around them are doing so and they feel pressure to keep up with an “in crowd”. But there’s an equally persuasive argument that every boo is personal. According to the philosopher Julian Baggini, football grounds draw out your exasperations, regardless of what the person next to you is doing.
“It’s like a carnival,” he says. “All cultures have areas which suspend rules, and going into a football stadium gives you a kind of licence for a raw unfiltered emotion, a suspension of decent behaviour. Normal people start calling people the worst words. It’s one of the few social occasions where it’s acceptable to say you hate someone.”
But crowds take their cue from society, too. There has been a growth in racist and homophobic abuse heard in football grounds. That, it is often argued, is a direct result of a political culture – with Brexit at the fore – which has allowed such opinions back into the mainstream.
Not all transgressive behaviour is so abhorrent, and booing certainly is not, but Baggini argues its prevalence may have social causes too. “I do find it striking how often in interviews [with fans] there’s a brute statement of fact that ‘we want to win trophies’,” Baggini says. “People support clubs who haven’t won trophies in ages. There are 20 [Premier League] teams and 19 will not succeed. But there seems to be a mismatch between the emotions people feel and the reality.
“This feeds into a thing about our culture that bothers me generally; there is a widespread belief that if you believe in yourself and knuckle down you will succeed. The downside is that if it doesn’t happen then it’s your fault. It’s such a widespread idea now, and I think there’s more of a tendency to think lack of success is blameworthy.”
That argument is persuasive to me. Maybe because it conforms to my prejudices; namely that we, as a society, have not just been turned into consumers but actively embraced that change. We enjoy finding things to complain about. Either way it would likely be just one cause among many. But as booing becomes more and more common, it seems that venting frustrations isn’t making anyone happier. Regardless of the causes: booing your own team doesn’t work.