I expect we have all at one time or another spent 90 minutes or so on a Saturday afternoon in the unwanted company of Mr Malcontent. They tut their way through the turnstiles then carry on moaning and groaning throughout the match. By their very essence, they seem to defy the definition of supporter with their constant negativity. And, yet, you’ve almost certainly found yourself subjected to their unremittingly bleak opinions in some rickety old stand. From before the first whistle to long after the referee’s final blast they are as grim and grey as the weather.
One of my first encounters with the phenomenon came in the first flush of my journalistic career when I held onto a belief that I could change the world. An editorial column in the local newspaper was, I thought, the perfect place to take aim at these mumping old miseryguts. The team was struggling, I opined, so the last thing it needed was a tide of pessimism coming wafting down from the main stand. The players could do with our backing, I reckoned, not our derision.
The ink had barely dried on the paper, however, when the phone rang. “Are you the guy that telt the fans tae stop moaning?” a voice inquired. I confirmed that I was, expecting to receive praise for my enlightened views and perhaps a verbal pat on the back for my efforts. I was to be given a rude awakening. “Well ah’m yin o’ the moaners,” he told me, “an’ ah’m no aboot tae stop it fur the likes of you. Ah pay ma money an ah can dae whit ah like!”
It was a blow. I had always imagined that these grumps – mainly, but not exclusively, old men – desired, deep down, to be happy. In my head, surely you would want your afternoon’s football to be an uplifting, rather than a depressing experience. What if, I began to wonder, some people actually wanted to be miserable? Was it possible that they were content in some strange way, even though they sounded so glum?
My efforts 20-odd years ago proved futile and it continues to both amuse and bemuse me when I come across these grouchy fans. They are often, when challenged, quite resolute in their grimness just as my mystery caller was back in the day. It’s my right, they say with steely resolve, to be this downbeat. The best they can muster, I have found, is often some sarcastic form of joviality which is little better than the dourness they generally purvey.
What I have come to admire, in a grudging sort of way, is how they can retain the complaining nature of their comments even in those rare good times enjoyed by a lower division Scottish side. Your team can be winning convincingly, top of the league, heading for a cup final but that is no cure for their malady. Their commitment to curmudgeonliness is never less than 100%.
I remember one individual – never slow to express his opinions as widely and loudly as possible – being convinced that a new acquisition was being played out of position. The manager persisted on playing him at centre forward when, in the view of this Sir Alex Ferguson of the terraces, he should have been used in a deeper role. He lacked the killer instinct, he told us, to be a goalscorer. No amount of evidence was going to change his view, as I found out most entertainingly one afternoon.
The no-hope hitman grabbed an early goal which we had just finished celebrating when we heard his words. “He’s still no a striker,” he informed everyone within a 50-yard radius. Myself and my wife’s father, sitting next to me, shrugged our shoulders in a what-you-gonna-do kind of way.
Later in the game our marksman found the goal again and our vocal expert repeated his opinion. “Ah dinnae care, he’s still no a striker,” he told us, possibly even louder than before. We bit our tongues, not wanting to cause a scene. But when the boy completed a hat-trick, my father-in-law could contain himself no more. Before our resident pundit could tell us once more about the player’s deficiencies, he spun on his heels and asked, in a mix of mischief and frustration: “Will he make a striker noo?”
There are only so many times you can hear someone tell you how terrible the fare you are watching is before you snap. It’s not the criticism that bothers me, really, it’s the outrageous expectation level from the lower reaches of the Scottish game.
I have, genuinely, sat in front of someone at a League Two match who complained that you would never see such poor control in the Champions League. Another time, somebody criticised his team for ‘failing to make the man advantage tell’ when the opponent who had been sent off had yet to disappear down the tunnel. And if I had a penny for every time somebody claimed that they could have taken a chance which has just been spurned I’d have at least enough for a half-time pie. Possibly a Bovril too.
There’s an implicit undercurrent in some of their gripes which I have come to recognise. Most of them played football once upon a time and have an inflated idea of what their skills were and the general quality of the game in years gone by. Either Scottish football was riddled with Ronaldos or had a myriad of Messis in the good old days or their claims are a load of baloney.
The only thing worse than being stuck next to one of these fine chaps is to be trapped near two of them. Their ability to egg each other on knows no bounds and you get what appears to be a kind of Muppet Show Statler and Waldorf effect. Each one is driven on to ever greater heights by the criticism coming from the other. The end result is to make everyone around them question why they came to the game when it clearly makes them so unhappy.
Yet, perhaps, I have been missing the point here. Maybe, deep down, there is a love for the team there that prompts them to act in this odd way. Did they start out young and optimistic but have it ground out of them by a series of disappointments – cup ties lost to lowly opposition or seasons that started out with hope only to end in relegation? Is this, simply, what too many decades of following a Scottish football team can do to a man or woman?
I don’t really believe that to be the case – I have seen too many long-suffering supporters who retain a kind of stoic smile – but there might be something in it. Is it, in fact, a defence mechanism to ward off the pain that the game so often inflicts upon us? If you expect only defeat, disaster and drubbings then, perhaps, anything else is a glorious bonus? Are they simply trying to form a barrier between themselves and the hurt that sport has a special ability to inflict?
That may be pushing things a bit too far, but it does cross my mind before I confront them when – usually about 60 minutes in – I have had enough. They never seem to give a team a break, make allowances for a player’s inexperience or be thankful for the odd golden fleck of joy that football can – all too sparingly, I admit – produce. We all know, deep down, that most matches in the lower reaches of the Scottish game are about graft and endeavour rather than skill. I think everyone who supports a smaller side is well aware that the heartache will outweigh the delight.
But that doesn’t mean we have to sink into a well of verbal despair every time we take our seat in the stand. And, most definitely, it doesn’t mean we want to listen to it. So, while I respect your right to spout forth whatever negative view you might have about the spectacle on offer, don’t expect me to share it and don’t expect me to accept it either. There is something of the familiar foe about you my friend, you are a miserable Moriarty to my hopeful Holmes. I can’t understand you, perhaps, but maybe I would miss you on a Saturday afternoon if you were not there. Matchday would certainly be a very different experience without you.