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The Evolution Of British Soccer Fans From Neanderthals to Warriors of the Light

Football journalist Gabriele Marcotti, a self-pronounced European football expert and intellectual, proudly considers himself to be part of an enlightened group he refers to as ‘Warriors of the Light’. This is in reference to any coaches, players or analysts who represent what he feels is right with the beautiful game.

Anyone who has served their football apprenticeship in mainland Europe or further afield often seem to look upon the British game with pity. As fans of the British game, we shell out wads of cash for match tickets and TV packages that enable us to get our fix of the English Premier League. It boasts modern all-seater stadiums, a much-vaunted fan atmosphere and fast paced, committed action.

As followers of the British game, can we all call ourselves ‘Warriors of the Light’? I would suggest that any cultured football intellectual would refer to us as anything but. I’ve forced myself into some harsh self-reflection, and the disturbing truth is that I may have been a football Neanderthal, a primitive football beast whose outlook has been shaped by the British media, the British coaches, and perhaps more than anything else, the British male bravado.

Allow me to elaborate. The players I most respect and admire are all cut from the same cloth: Bryan Robson, Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney. They all exert maximum effort, they chase lost causes, they are always on the move, they motivate, they inspire, and they can all stick the boot in. I believe that my admiration for these qualities is certainly not exclusive to my own preferences, but are typical of the average British fan.

There are certain instances in a game that will be met with approval from any football crowd anywhere in the world: a goal, a penalty decision, a ball boy or manager falling over, or a magnificent piece of individual skill. What sets the British fan apart is the approval he merits to a crunching tackle or a brutal 50/50. There is a deeply ingrained belief that flying into a tackle full pelt and knocking an opponent six feet into the air can be a game-changing moment. It certainly endears any player to their fans. Even when I was in primary school, nothing got me praise from my coach like a hard challenge, whether the ball was won or not.

Spain’s midfield dictator, Xabi Alonso, spent five years playing for Liverpool. In a recent interview, he describes his despair at the mindset of the British players and fans alike: “I can’t get into my head that football development would educate tackling as a quality, something to learn, to teach, a characteristic of your play… It’s hard to change because it’s so rooted in the English football culture, but I don’t understand it.”

My views are, I’m glad to say, changing. My appreciation of the game is evolving. This is a gradual process that has been thrust upon me as I have slowly realized that the game has changed. I grew up watching football in the 1990’s. The launch of the Premier League was greeted enthusiastically by a global audience because of the different product it provided. The league was the fastest and most physical, every game was a ferocious contest, and this carried a far-reaching appeal. This naturally led to the acceptance of the game’s hard men, who would cover every blade of grass on the pitch, and leave a physical impression on his opposition. Unfortunately, and forgive my hyperbole, it led to the demise of the footballer. Don’t get me wrong, there were still some amazingly talented individuals, like Le Tissier, Cantona and Bergkamp. However, they stood out because they could rely on their immense skill over their work rate and honest endeavor.

Look at the English national team. The amount of caps accumulated by players like David Batty, Carlton Palmer, and more recently Scott Parker is outrageous. For as long as I have been a fan, English teams have always craved a midfield enforcer. Their actual ability is a secondary consideration as long as they can run and put themselves about. This has been to the detriment of incredible footballers like Glenn Hoddle, Steve McManaman, Matt Le Tissier, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick. Traditionally, English teams have not known how to use these gifted individuals, and the fans are too pre-occupied roaring approval for a thumping yet mistimed challenge.

What upsets me the most is that I have been one of these fans. I’ve been missing the point. I’ve been appreciating the wrong things. In a period of football history that has treated me to Zola, Zidane, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, I’ve been bleating on about Wayne Rooney making a tackle in his own penalty box, or Steven Gerrard pinging a trademark long pass to his team mate once in every ten attempts.

The rest of the world laughs at us because we value these qualities over technical ability. The game moved on and left us behind. We are the football equivalent of pre-historic man, staring for hours in amazement at fire, marvelling at the invention of the wheel, with a Richard Keys level of hairiness, and the communication ability of Stan Collymore.
The teams to be admired in the modern era retain possession. They are comfortable with the ball at their feet. They do not have the irresistible urge to regress to a ‘kick and rush’ approach.

I do believe that British clubs are slowly adapting to this philosophy, as are the fans. We aren’t there yet though. It is difficult to change the culture of British football unless the fans will join in with the journey. There was widespread condemnation of the Spanish national team for their ‘boring’ approach during Euro 2012 where they comprehensively dominated all teams they came up against. Contrastingly, there was a general acceptance of the English effort at the tournament, where they were resoundingly outplayed in each of their four games. When they were painfully eliminated in the quarter final against Italy, the sole hope of progression to the next phase was centred on Joe Hart’s ability to hit the ball 70 yards on to the head of Andy Carroll, the antithesis of the progressive style I’ve been alluding to.

Top sides do not need a ball winner, at least not in the guise of someone who offers nothing but tackling ability and a smattering of red cards throughout a season. The fact Vinnie Jones had a long football career in England is an indictment of the Premier League.

It is not necessary to win the ball back when you don’t give it away. An interception is just as important as a tackle. A five yard pass that retains possession is more useful than a 50 yard pass that goes out for a throw in. These are all obvious statements, but play football at any level in Britain, and you will quickly find that players who appreciate these simple facts are the exception rather than the rule.

The misguided belief that teams need to get the ball forward, hoof it clear, get a shot away when it is not on, filters through from the stands who will not tolerate a patient and structured approach.

Probably the best example of fans not appreciating a true ‘Warrior of the Light’ is the Manchester United fans, and England fans, with Michael Carrick. If Carrick was Italian or Spanish, he would have 100 caps by now. He has a great deal of technical ability, a range of passing, excellent positional sense and composure on the ball. Yet English fans under value him because he is perceived as negative, passing short or sideways if it represents the best option. Paul Scholes is similar but his ability to score goals and fly recklessly into a tackle scored him extra favour with the fans. Again, the fact that he was shunted out to the left side to accommodate the more powerful and direct approach of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard illustrates the point perfectly.

Adam Johnson was overlooked for England’s Euro 2012 squad to accommodate Stewart Downing. In the words of Ron Atkinson “He dribbles a lot and the opposition don’t like it – you can see it all over their faces.” However, Downing can “do a job”. Johnson offers a rare quality in that he can actually go past a player and create something, but true to form England select the player with less ability and more tactical discipline.

We do appreciate skill in this country – as long as what the player is trying comes off and works first time. This is understandable when you think of a player like Mario Balotelli trying the same needless flicks that only accomplish giving the ball away; there is a collective groan from the fans, especially when he makes no effort to atone for an error. The problem with the British game is that right from grass roots, we can’t help but encourage kids to take the direct route, get the ball to the biggest team mate, and get stuck in, as opposed to praising skill, technique and dribbling. The easiest option for a youngster is to get the ball and lump it forward, at least that way they won’t get lambasted for conceding a goal. This remains the case until these kids are grown men.

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  1. Sideways_Steve

    March 9, 2013 at 8:37 am

    I have been thinking something similar of late but from a different angle. As Liverpool change their style to some version of tiki-taka I wonder the effect it will have on the English game as a whole.

    Since LFC have so many young English players I think however this goes for Liverpool perhaps it will go with the English national team.

    This isn’t a perfect parallel and there are plenty of young English players derived from other squads but perhaps it is a small glimpse of a shift in the English game.

  2. IanCransonsKnees

    March 8, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    What’s that I smell, sniff, sniff, a superiority complex

    • IanCransonsKnees

      March 8, 2013 at 3:52 pm

      A superiority complex I think. The Dutch and French, who are admittedly superior internationally, have had players sent off in major tournament finals in recent years.

      It seems to me like you’ve fallen for the drip, drip, drip approach of the ‘top’ football writers who espouse this mantra like its the holy grail.

      I’ll be honest I really don’t care about international football and the England team. It’s made up of players I want to see get beat every week for their club teams as a rival fan. Terry (racist) Ferdinand (drug ban) Rooney (womaniser, user of prostitutes) Lampard (drunkard abuse of Americans on 9/11) Wilshire (assaults girls in nightclubs) and on, and on, and on.

      Until someone gets a grip on finance in English football and effectively takes control of the players and how they are created and educated you’ll never see what you’re describing on a grand scale. A generation of training for coaches is necessary before this will happen. Look at the number of accredited coaches in Spain compared to England for a start.

      All in all I can appreciate that teams like Barcelona and Madrid play amazing football, they are ridiculously well bankrolled, but I struggle to understand how anyone can derive joy from watching them steamroll he league year after year. Its simply the SPL in a warmer climate.

      I don’t know what the answer is but if you don’t enjoy it don’t watch it is the simple answer. Similarly (and I appreciate the article doesn’t explicitly sate this, though there is an undercurrent there) dont ridicule those of us who appreciate it for what it is and go week in week out, spending no small amount to do so.

      Marcotti’s an intelligent chap but he’s an utter snob when it comes to football.

  3. Dean Stell

    March 8, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    Good article and I’ll admit that I’m an American who does enjoy those neaderthal aspects of the game. For me, a big thing is that in the English game I see men who look like me. I’m 6’2″ and weigh about 235 pounds. I enjoy watching large men doing powerful things and I can’t identify with these skinny, little jitterbug players. I can’t even begin to emulate the things they do. But, I can admire someone like Beckham, or Yaya Toure, or Phil Jones. They play soccer like big men and I appreciate that.

    I deal with this in my rec league where I’m always chasing these little bastards around. They’re just nimble in ways that I can’t be, but….I can knock them over when I feel like it.

    • Frill Artist

      March 8, 2013 at 1:41 pm

      Sounds like American Football is the sport for you.

      • Dean Stell

        March 8, 2013 at 6:12 pm

        Hell….American Football is for giants. I’m Messi sized compared to those guys. It’s also hard to identify with a guy who is 6’7″, 270 lbs and runs like a deer.

        Don’t get me wrong…..I enjoy watching the technical players, but part of the reason I enjoy the English game a little more is that I see guys I can aspire to copying (even at my advanced age). I’m just too big to even try to copy Messi stuff.

  4. Jonathan

    March 8, 2013 at 11:34 am

    Nice article. It’s definitely an under-valued trait in the English game to be technical and use actual tactics. As the world moves ahead, hopefully we will follow. When England learns to focus on a variety of skills and embraces the whole spectrum of players available to them, then maybe they’ll be able to truly compete on the international stage. Until then, I’ll hope for the impossible, wave St. George’s flag, and yell at my television.

  5. Dust

    March 8, 2013 at 10:44 am

    While well written with some things I agree with I do not agree with Xabi Alonso perspective or your premise that appreciation for a tackling is 1 British or 2 contributed to a Neanderthal like football intelligence. Italians, Dutch, Germans, French all have had players / teams that have had midfielders and defenders of the same ilk.

    Some how the recent Spanish renaissance applies to all of mainland Europe and while British football (the most cosmopolitan league in the world, making it both perfectly British and inclusive league in the world) is slowly pulling itself out of the Stone Age.

    I have to run… So apologies for the incomplete thought.
    I have so many examples that disprove the premise over arching premise and the “we” representation that I do not include myself in, just not enough time right now… A shame.

    • Fergus

      March 9, 2013 at 5:10 am

      There are obviously generalisations and there is plenty I don’t like about European football, the premier league is the most entertaining, I just think if you look at European competitions in the recent past, British teams have been consistently outclassed. Even Chelsea’s success last season was based on smash and grab, backs to the wall defending. I just think in England we don’t value the truly talented players as much as is merited. Direct and athletic players are held up on a pedestal but get found out against high class, technically proficient opposition

  6. Wongo1

    March 8, 2013 at 10:31 am

    Interesting article Fergus but while you lament the British game I see the core value and argue that if you are trying to make all the teams look alike then why bother?

    I give you Germany, a team that has players of all attributes, players that will get stuck in, players with skill and players who as you say are there to remind the other team that guess what this ain’t no pitter patter playing area a la Vinne Jones.

    I do agree with you that England needs many more skilled players like the Germans, more machines.

    • Fergus

      March 9, 2013 at 4:39 am

      I don’t want to come across like I don’t like the British game, it’s more that I don’t want to see it get left behind whilst the rest of the world moves on. I would like the emphasis to be on skill and technique which is the way things are going, but football culture and some fans can be resistant to change

      • Wongo123

        March 9, 2013 at 9:07 am

        Fergus your point is well taken and I can tell you at least from my group of British friends and myself we love skillful players.

        What we don’t like are divers, crybabies and players that really only play for 20% of the game.

        This is why players like David Silva, Yaya Toure are revered throughout the league and teams with academies are focusing on skill.

        I do agree with you that a player like Carrick is looked down on because of his lack of “brawn” even though Carrick will stick a boot in when needed, I have seen it.

        I think the British game is coming around all be it more slowly than people like you and I would like.

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