Sport Comment: Cosseted players can learn from loyal fans

John Inverdale
EVERY football team has supporters like the two I met on a train on Saturday evening coming back from Newcastle, but just occasionally you wonder if a “meet the fans” evening at every professional club wouldn’t help focus the minds of some players who regard their job as a right and not a privilege, and abuse it as a consequence, either off the field or by sleepwalking through some matches and cashing the cheque at the end.

These two Geordies leave Brighton at 6am to travel to St James’ Park, watch in their words “a fairly average team” (who lost 3-2 to Hull) and then endure a snail-like return to arrive home at 2am, to get up for work five hours later. The cost? They’d rather not think about it, but as a percentage of their income it’s “ridiculous” and some players “didn’t look bothered in the second half”.

I don’t know if that kind of devotion is replicated worldwide or if it's a peculiarly British phenomenon, but with the diversification of nationalities in most Premier League clubs, it would be surprising if every player fully understood the commitment so many of their fans make on the highways and railways of this country every week. These days, you suspect that because of work and social reasons, for a sizeable chunk of every club’s spectators, every home game is an away game.

This is not to suggest that when players kiss the badge after scoring a goal their immediate thought should be “that’s for the loyal band who got up nine hours ago to travel 400 miles to watch us and who’ve got to get the 5.45 back to make the connection at Kings Cross”, but when the team is 1-0 down with 10 minutes to go, a flickering image of the commitment so many fans are showing them might invigorate and inspire tired limbs and minds towards an equaliser.

The Dickensian times when Stanley Matthews used to get the same bus to the match as those who watched him did at least ensure a mutual understanding between player and supporter. Today’s stars, cocooned in their elite worlds, would benefit hugely from having the opportunity to really talk to fans, not just listen to them on phone-in shows, and understand in practical terms what sacrifices they make to follow their club. It might change a few attitudes. It might even help win a few games.