LEE CATTERMOLE is robust and tenacious, never scared to go flying in where he could come off worse and no one could question his passion. So his crunching throat-high tackle on the Boro boo-boys in his no-nonsense post-match interview on BBC Tees after SaturdayÃ¢ÂÂs 1-1 Riverside draw with Spurs was par for the course for the youngster.
Of course, critics may call that rash, as they do with some of his challenges on the pitch. It is never wise to take a pop at the supporters as even the most well intentioned statements have the potential to inflame terrace politicians adept at scoring points and turning words into weapons. Even the well crafted arguments of wily Keith Lamb about the relative economic status of season ticket holders and casual fans earlier this season – logical in themselves – caused a furious backlash so a relative media novice with a microphone shoved under his nose with the adrenaline still pumping is always going to be a hostage to fortune.
But in his short impassioned outburst the Stockton-born midfield terrier pointed squarely to a contentious and divisive issue that goes right to the heart of the cultural conflict deep within a Boro crowd that is frustrated, angry and increasingly divided against itself.
Ã¢ÂÂI thought the fans were out of order,Ã¢Â? he said ten minutes after the whistle. Ã¢ÂÂWe were all working hard out there, running our bollocks off for the full 90 minutes. If people are going to boo then they may as well stay at home.Ã¢Â?
No one else would have got away with that statement but the popular Teessider who had put in an unquestioned shift. Cattermole has shed blood and tears for Boro and gives it his all in every match. No one would ever accuse him of hiding. Had Mark Schwarzer, Fabio Rochemback or Lee Dong Gook said it there would have been an ugly mob with torches and pitchforks forming before the provocateur could get his Baby Bentley out of the car park.
Immediately Teessiders took sides over what Cattermole had said. Not that it was an original insight, more that it gave a new platform to refight old philosophical battles with the urgency that the pressure at the bottom of the table brings.
On one hand there are those who backed his stance over fans who barrack their own players, insisting it can only undermine already fragile morale and the precious unity between team and crowd that is a key ingredient in building up the momentum neccessary to sustained success.
On the other are those who saw his outburst as a insult to the people who pay his wages, a public rubbing of salt into the wounds as they trudged away cursing an under-performing team that is paid lavishly to entertain them, or at least put up a scrap. They were fuming that having shown their own passion they were told to shut up or stay at home by one of the well paid professionals that chairman Steve Gibson said last week should think about those doing gruelling 14 hour shifts before complaining about the downs of their lifestyles.
Just as battle lines are being drawn against a background of an impending campaign against relegation – and an incipient one against the boss – Cattermole has pointed to the great divide between the ra-ra element who believe the role of the crowd is to give unstinting support, especially when the chips are down, and the chicken-runners, who will go along with that when the team is riding high but when the things are sticky see their duty to point out the flaws and urge the powers that be to act quickly to correct them.
Those factions are two sides of the same coin and deeply ingrained in the Teesside football psyche going back generations, a unity of conflicting opposites that makes a crowd a dynamic and powerful entity – and one that is hard to control.
Let me outline my position. IÃ¢ÂÂm not a boo boy. A cynical, gallows humour grumbler maybe, and a vocal critic when need be, but not a boo boy. If a player is having a nightmare he will not dramatically improve just because angry strangers are hurling abuse, no matter how much a week he is paid.
But while I canÃ¢ÂÂt see a positive reaction to booing, I can see a possible negative one. If an individual is struggling it is hardly likely to aid concentration or form if he is booed throughout by his own fans. Some have even been jeered in the warm-up before now, or as they came off the bench. How exactly does that motivate? Booing will not motivate in this game, will possibly knock his confidence in the next and in the long run could even hasten his departure amid muttering about an ungrateful and unreasonable crowd and, worst, could dissuade others from signing for Boro in the future. Especially if the word in the interconnected text message gossip that is football’s cloistered little village is that Boro are a crowd of moaning gets.
The corrosive effect can infect teams a well as individuals too and playing at home can become a daunting task to such an extent that any home advantage is negated. A fear factor can grow as players become nervous at the prospect of making a mistake in front of a mob looking for blood and an excuse to legitimise this week’s witch-hunt.
That said it must be recognised that not everyone sees it the same way. There are those whose first instinct when their team or club is in trouble or are under-performing is to boo and they have every right to do so. No one would realistically deny that. Even the players accept it.
Chris Riggott was asked about the booing just as Cattermole had and responded: “I wonÃ¢ÂÂt criticise the fans. They have every right to say what they feel. ItÃ¢ÂÂs only their way of showing the frustration that we all feel at times. And at least those fans making the noise are turning up for the game. They show commitment, and whether they boo or jeer, we know they want us to do well. And it cuts both ways. We have to perform well to lift them.Ã¢Â?
That response was in today’s Gazette and it was suggested by some cynics that it was a PR spin job, aimed to counter any negative effect of Cattermole’s comments but in fact they were made almost simultaneously elsewhere in the post match tunnel press debriefing. What it reflects as much as anything is that the basic difference in attitude extends into the changies.
It is recognised by all that booing is part and parcel of the established terrace tradition that the paying punter can express dissatisfaction at the fare on offer if they so choose and part of the popularity of the game is derived from its ability to allow fans to express every conceivable frustration at the grind of daily life. And it is a rite of passage for young working class lads to berate this yearÃ¢ÂÂs scapegoat in colourful and amusing fashion. It is part of what fans do.
Ideally though it should be reserved for the real stinkers. Overuse devalues it’s impact. And letÃ¢ÂÂs be honest, Boro fans of any seniority will have seen far worse performances over the years – or even this season – and in truth a rot-stopping draw against a side most pundits insist will finish in the top half is not a disaster.
But it has gone beyond booing individual displays now. Booing is now an endemic part of the game that reflects a wider frustration and alienation among supporters at the way football as a whole is going and with a growing discontent at wider events at the Boro.
Fans are angry at prices and wages, especially when displays fall short of those the tariff suggests. They are angry at the failure of the club to progress since Eindhoven – indeed some fear the whole process has been slammed into reverse.
They are angry at the weakness in key areas of the squad after big names have left. At a failure to compete. At losing the white band and losing their soulmates at Century. At the soulless atmosphere in the stadium, at overly officious stewarding, at poor PR.
They are angry at things that happened in previous games, for instance at Downing trying to pull off a suicidal Cruyff turn in his own box at Old Trafford, and have nursed the grievance over a week of brooding and gone into games waiting for a chance to discharge that frustration.
They are angry at being expected to be being happy with a point after five defeats on the bounce, at the prospect of a season of unremitting grind around the drop zone having been promised entertaining football and at the growing gulf between the club and the supporters.
And worse still, they are angry that they are tied into it through the season ticket. In the past the discontented would just not go the following week, they would carry out an impromptu boycott for a few games to make their protest. Now, for most, such a protest would only hit themselves in the pocket, not the club – so they stay and make their protest verbally, or sit and simmer in stony silence at long standing resentments that help magnify every minor blip into a crisis and every poor display into ‘the worst ever’. The entire workings of the club are now viewed by a significant and vocal faction through a damning prism of barely contained anger.
And in the modern game there is much for alienated fans to protest about in the background and with Boro’s current malaise there is a complex mosaic of minor moans in the foreground too that the dissent is a drawn out symphony of white noise with peaks and troughs of anger that map the external political events as much as bad results.
That is the background. For the club the danger comes when the boo-boys start to win the day the debates in pubs and clubs, on the phone-ins and message boards and when the overtly vocal dissent reaches an over-critical mass. Then it takes on a life of its own. When a team loses the crowd a slump inevitably follows and the managerÃ¢ÂÂs job prospects look bleak.
We are not at that stage yet. Although opinion is quickly becoming polarised it is not yet like the final 18 months of Bryan Robson or Steve McClaren when booing was endemic and even the beleaguered optimists could barely bring themselves to oppose it, nor in the last days of embattled Lennie Lawrence when there was fisticuffs between rival factions on the Holgate.
But time is running out fast to halt the slide, head off a fans revolt and get the season and the entire project back on track. The players must not be drawn into a conflict with fans, no matter how well intentioned. They must give the fans something to cheer.