Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Football's noisy chasm: The case of Steve Coppell and why fans boo

When Steve Coppell announced his resignation after just two months as Bristol City manager, the surprise resonated far beyond the usual gawpings of radio phone-ins or rolling news channel banalities.

The esteemed former Reading boss was not only stepping down from his post at a bafflingly early stage, but retiring from football altogether.

And it was Coppell's reason for taking such decisive action which shocked commentators and fans most.

The 55-year-old explained how his fading passion for the game had left him devoid of inspiration, unmoved by the prospect of leading his Bristol City players for their second match of the season.

But while, for most, an element of detachment from one's work is a prerequisite for sanity; for football fans, a sense of distance or objectivity in relation to the sport is as attractive as a steak and kidney flapjack.

Coppell had enjoyed a successful managerial career, guiding Crystal Palace and Reading to the Premier League, and earning praise for the fluent, attacking style he instilled in his teams. So why, fans asked, would somebody turn their back on this ultimate profession?

The answer lies in the nature of that question's final word.

Throughout his playing and managerial career, Coppell maintained a sense of perspective; as enjoyable as football may be, it was for him simply a job.

Such an outlook is partly influenced by Coppell's playing days, ended by injury at the cruel young age of 28.

Having had his own dream job cut short, the former England international has an acute understanding of how football is but a profession. Life goes on without it.

It is this detachment, however, which causes the chasm ripping through the sport''s heart.

Beyond the vuvuzelas, the soundtrack of this summer's World Cup was the chorus of boos.

For the usually adored likes of Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard, a tournament-long exhibition of mediocrity saw them drown under an inescapable din of boos.

The cries of fury in South Africa, however, were no different to the tunes of discontent which ring out of from British stadia on a weekly basis.

For every player who has his name chanted by thousands, there is one who feels the wrath of his club's followers, and it is not simply because a pass intended for a team-mate has ended up in the directors' lounge.

A miss-kick or a home defeat can sometimes be grudgingly accepted, but it is the manner of failure which irks fans most.

The passion of the underperforming players is questioned, their desire to win is shrouded in doubt, and their wages are (justifiably) criticised.

Further than the obvious alienation that stems from such a gross gap in pay, the division between players and fans is intrinsically linked to the bemusement supporters felt after Coppell's resignation.

For fans, there can be no sympathy for individuals who treat as a job what is for them a passion.

While the audience vicariously endures the drama of their club's season, the protagonists treat each match as a matinee, a day in the office.

But what might be just another afternoon's work for the players of this piece is for the paying onlookers an addiction.

For disgruntled season ticket holders, the players - to whose wages they make a significant contribution - are little more than mercenaries commodifying their purest form of entertainment.

So, armed with little more than their voices and cups of Bovril, the boo is for fans the most effective way of expressing their disgust; the most direct form of bypassing the chasm between players and supporters.

The season is but a few weeks old, yet terraces nationwide are already shaking with boos.

And should the cat calls or wolf whistles lead to another resignation or retirement, this chasm will only grow wider and louder.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Football's parallel universe

With the Premier League fast approaching, much media coverage revolves around the frenzied dealings of the transfer market. And although a plucky performance on a soggy pitch in Pontcanna is unlikely to attract a multi-million bid from Manchester City, amateurs in the parks league can rejoice in the fact that they too can move from club to club like an expensive professional.

While there are some who loyally stick with one team for years, those of a more fickle ilk can forge a journeying career with only the briefest of stays at any number of sides. Pre-season training is nearing its conclusion, and players across the leagues are ready to showcase their talent to a host of potential new clubs.

There are numerous stages for such displays, whether it is the hallowed turf of Trelai Park or Cwrt-Y-Vil’s home ground Llandough Fields. Changing rooms are infused with the smell of cigarettes and Deep Heat muscle rub, and the pitches themselves are a marshland of miss-kicks and the odd moment of brilliance.

This contrast is the primary appeal of parks football; a player is as likely to fire a match-winning volley as he is to be kicked into orbit by an overweight, middle-aged centre-back. Parks football is also intrinsically attractive for fans of the sport because it often seems to operate in a parallel universe to the professional game.

In the shadow of the Cardiff City Stadium, for example, lies a ground belonging to a different footballing sphere, Grange Albion’s Coronation Park. While 20,000 or so flock to see Cardiff compete for a place in the Premier League, a handful of fans walking across Sloper Road stop by to watch 22 less celebrated players vie for the bragging rights of an alternative top flight: the Cardiff and District Premier Division.

I’ve plied my trade with parks sides of varying quality, and although professionals now often seem to be younger than me, I still haven’t entirely abandoned my childhood ambition of playing in the Premier League. Arsene Wenger, however, has not yet been in contact.

As written for Guardian Cardiff