Jonathan Wilson's Editor's Note from Issue Nine
There are times when being a football journalist is tiring. It's not the late nights, the long hours and the ceaseless travelling - although by the end of the season that is beginning to wear you down – so much as the relentless anger you have to deal with. Hooliganism may have fallen away but football is a terribly angry sport.
Maybe it's always been that way and it's just that social media has revealed it, but it's a terrifying thought that so many should go around waiting to be outraged, desperate to find evidence of disrespect, that so many should believe in the most absurd conspiracy theories, that so many should seemingly spend so much time sitting around waiting for the opportunity to be unpleasant. I used to think Eastenders was ridiculous because I couldn't believe nastiness was a default setting; maybe I was naive.
It's almost impossible to write anything about football without annoying somebody. The most banal observation will cause offence. You'll be at a game, something will happen 30 yards away, you'll tweet about it, and you'll find yourself abused for reporting something you saw clearly, something backed up by replays. Often you'll draw fire from both sides of an argument, that you're somehow simultaneously both too tough and not tough enough on biting/ bad tackles/ diving/ racism (delete as applicable). And, of course, the most objectionable aspect of that last sentence is that something as serious as racism has somehow become another football issue, and as such tends to be debated on partisan grounds.
But actually the most grating thing is the kneejerk snideness. Earlier this season, after Barcelona had beaten AC Milan 4-0 in the last 16 of the Champions League to overturn a 2-0 first-leg deficit, I wrote a piece for the Guardian reflecting on the away goals rule and whether a) it was ever fair and b) even if it were, whether it has become counterproductive. It's an issue of regulation, it's not about fundamental beliefs or one team over another: it's hard to imagine people getting too worked up over it.
The following night, Arsenal – to general surprise – won 2-0 in Munich, to go out of the Champions League against Bayern on away goals, having lost the first leg 3-1. Not surprisingly, a lot of Arsenal fans then retweeted the piece, as did the US journalist Grant Wahl. I then got a reply from an American sneering that I'd only made an issue of it because it involved a Premier League club. He obviously hadn't read the piece: if he had, it would have been clear it had been written about Barcelona. But even if he had, and even if I had questioned the validity of the away goals rule on the back of the Arsenal game, so what? I am a British journalist and the piece was in a British paper: it's hardly outrageous that it should discuss an issue when it became relevant to a team based in Britain.
This obsession not with the contents of a piece but with its existence is bizarre. Somebody may not be interested in a piece on the away goals rule, which is fine; nothing compels them to read it. Somebody may not like carrots but they wouldn't email the farmer to tell him not to grow them. But somebody actually went to the effort of composing a tweet to complain that I'd written a piece he'd hadn't read. As a rule, you try to ignore such people but occasionally the drip-drip of attrition gets the better of you. So I called him out on it. He sneered back (it seemed to be his natural mode) that of course he hadn't read it as it was in the Guardian. So he was complaining about a piece he hadn't read on a website he doesn't read. Still, he ended with a smiley face, so it was all alright.
It's a minor issue, obviously. All that story tells you is that there's one bloke in the US who for about five minutes of his life acted like a prick. It happens. But it seems to happen an awful lot. There is a strange culture of entitlement around football. An opposing player goes to take a throw-in and you're in the front row. What's the natural reaction? Is it a) to think, "Look! I'm six feet from Full-Back X"? b) to ponder that Full-Back X looks a lot thinner in real life? Or c) to hurl abuse at Full-Back X while making wanker gestures? For far too many people it's c). Full-Back X has, after all, had the temerity to come near them wearing the shirt of an opposing team so he had it coming.
A similar reasoning seems to motivate those who discover a journalist disagrees with them and respond with abuse and accusations of bias. How could it be? How could somebody possibly think differently to me? They must be an idiot/ wilfully drumming up controversy/ in the pay of somebody. This reached an apogee for me when Tottenham's game against Southampton in May was delayed for 30 minutes because large numbers of fans had been held up getting to the game by a chemical spill on the M25. Pretty much everybody in the press room at White Hart Lane reacted in the same way: an irritated shrug at half an hour added to the day, but an acceptance that it was probably the right decision. But my Twitter feed filled up with people expressing disbelief, furious that their sitting on their sofas watching television had been inconvenienced by people who had paid for tickets actually trying to get to a match. I confess it was something of a watershed moment, the first time I realised that there is a world of television consumers who actually see themselves as more important than people who attend the game in person, who actually thought their cable subscription outweighed safety concerns on the Seven Sisters Road. Again, in and of itself it's a minor issue; what's worrying is the trend it represents.
The self-entitlement is also manifested in the willingness of so many on Twitter and in comments sections to pass judgement on others. The media as a whole, of course, can be guilty of this and does have an annoying tendency to go after low-hanging fruit. This is where the familiar "lazy journalism" jibe does have currency, less in terms of the hours put in than the intellectual energy expended. It's easier to follow the familiar templates of previous stories than to work out what is actually going on and apply perspective.
Twitter and comments sections should be a boon, a way for people with a shared interest to interact. It's a positive when journalists are called to account for a mistake or a misjudgement or if they are forced to defend their opinions. But that's not the way it's working. What's happening is a grim attritional process that means most journalists give comments sections at most a cursory glance. Worthwhile criticism is lost amid the idiocy and the abuse.
But actually the situation is worse than that and extends far beyond the confines of social media reaction to journalism. That is just a symptom of a wider malaise. Football, the one global sport, something that should be a great unifier, has come to be dominated by the angry and the self-entitled. It's terribly sad.