A target for the boo-boys

posted by Nick Hornby December 10, 2008 at 2:23 pm Sport ,

In the late sixties and early seventies, when I first started watching football, I was always reading about players who, as the sports-journalism cliché put it, had become “a target for the boo-boys”. These players were hapless individuals who, usually through a whole string of undistinguished performances for an underachieving team, would always attract the wrath of their own fans, no matter what they did – and what they did was usually inept, partly because their confidence had been shot to pieces. Jon Sammels, who played for Arsenal between 1963 and 1971, was, it was widely believed, driven out of the club by the “boo-boys”; later, the malcontents at Highbury aimed their displeasure at David Price, and Lee Chapman, and even, at the end of his time at Arsenal, Michael Thomas, the man who scored the most famous goal in Arsenal’s history. For long periods over the last forty years, in fact, we seemed to have had more targets for the boo-boys than we had idols. Emmanuel Eboue, who came on as a substitute in the game against Wigan last Saturday, but had to be substituted because the crowd were on his back to the extent that he could hardly stand up, is thus the latest in a long and ignoble line of Arsenal players stretching back to a time long before I was born.

In the last few days, however, there have been several articles describing the treatment of Eboue as an entirely modern phenomenon, a result of increased ticket prices, a new breed of fan, etc etc. A man in the Daily Mail went so far as to claim that in the good old days, “supporters’ pride would not allow open displays of dissent. It was considered treachery, because it betrayed a weakness to rivals, and any player’s shortcomings would be swept away in a roar of encouragement.”  I am beginning to wonder whether the real problem with football is not a new breed of fan but a new breed of football journalist; some of the people who comment on the game now either have no memory of anything that happened before, say, 2002 (a real disadvantage in sports writing, which needs context), or they actually had no interest in the game before being given their current job.  In the Guardian earlier this year, the reliable Harry Pearson actually became quite nostalgic when writing about the “boo boys”.  “What a delightful phrase that is, conjuring up for the more elderly among us the smell of Oxo and Old Spice, the rattle of half-time number-boards and the sound of the Harry J All-Stars’ Liquidator being played over a PA system so feeble and tinny it may just as well have been a bloke with a Dansette and a megaphone.”  So there you have it. Booing your own player is either something that was invented yesterday by yuppies, or a practise that’s been going on since before Match of the Day was first broadcast in colour.

The reasons poor Eboue was so shoddily treated on Saturday are many and various. A lot of Arsenal fans wouldn’t like him much even if he scored twenty-five goals a season; he’s perceived to be something of an embarrassment, a rare example of a player who both feigns injury and causes injury to others. And the Emirates Stadium is not a happy place at the moment anyway – in fact, it has never been particularly cheerful. The move to the new stadium coincided with, maybe resulted in, the breakup of a great side, and we are now paying much more for much less.  The football this season has been a pallid and frustrating imitation of the stuff we were watching even twelve months ago – every year, it seems, experienced players leave, to be replaced by younger, currently lesser talent.

The real problem with English football is that there is no new breed of fan. The average age of spectators at a Premiership match is forty-three; when they boo, they remember Sammels and Chapman, if they’re at Arsenal; or Gareth Hall, at Chelsea;  or Torben Piechnik, at Liverpool; or countless other players with two left feet up and down the country and the decades. They will boo until their vocal chords have withered away.