Football fans are often accused of being inherently negative and many comedy sketches have been built around the premise of the turn up to moan culture which the game is assumed to run on. That’s not really true – or, at the least, it’s an outdated characterisation which is no longer fit for purpose. Football fandom is based on positivity and hoping for the best in the face of overwhelming realism. Hope and optimism may be antiquated qualities, but they exist in plentiful supply and most supporters still turn up to games in anticipation of seeing something slightly better than can be reasonably expected to happen.
As a case in point, a tendency to clutch at straws is an essential part of a fan’s make-up. During bad times or periods of underperformance, they will typically believe that one simple change will right all the wrongs or that there is a manager or single player who can, just by appearing in the dug-out or on the pitch, reverse their side’s fortunes.
Sometimes that happens. Sometimes a change in coaching or the integration of a new player can, like a quick rewiring of a circuit, spark a set of apparently faulty components. Typically, though, a team’s decline is not attributable to any single department and these visible problems – the ones which we all have such simple solutions to – are merely symptoms of something which lurks beneath the surface.
Still, this is where that inexhaustible fan optimism shows itself: there’s always a tactical tweak that can be made or a transfer which can be completed and it’s that, rather than steady, drawn-out reform, which will reverse the trend. It’s the glass half-full mentality manifesting itself in the belief of a shortcut. Supporters don’t care for transitional periods or multiple slow-build seasons, they want white knights and to believe that the good times area always in reach.
In October 2013, Adnan Januzaj made his first competitive start for Manchester United. The Belgian scored twice – his second a perfectly executed volley of a dropping ball – to reverse a one-goal deficit at The Stadium of Light and thrust himself into the game’s consciousness. It was the kind of moment which usually marks the arrival of a superstar and it was reliably portrayed as the start of Januzaj’s ascent towards icon status.
Of course, such a response was entirely reasonable, as only the hardest cynic would have sanded those flames with cautionary asterisks and the world quickly fell in love with the Belgian (maybe English?) winger.
But it was a false dawn. Over time it has become apparent that the willowy Januzaj, though blessed with technique and the capacity to beat a defender, isn’t quite what he initially seemed to be. He’s good without being great, useful without being essential. That revaluation has come in time, but also by the recognition that perhaps Januzaj was transformed into what Manchester United’s fans wanted – or needed – him to be and was exaggerated beyond his capabilities.
David Moyes’ time at Old Trafford was bleak. The results were disappointing, the football was horrifyingly bland and Januzaj was a partial remedy to that. But the trouble with being a slither of light in a dark world is the inevitability of being refracted out of all proportion. Januzaj was a good player who could perhaps become something at the top of the game, but instead he was immediately loaded with the expectation of an entire club – he was the great hope, the one who was going to make it all better.
He was the lifeboat into which everybody clambered during a desperate time.
“It’s okay now, we’re safe: we’ve found a Januzaj! Give me your hand and I’ll drag you aboard.”
“Are you sure? It looks a bit flimsy…”
“No it isn’t, everybody in.”
When the team underperformed or were overly formulaic, it was because he wasn’t there to cure the deficiencies. He was a multi-dimensional package of dynamism, skill and end product who would, if starting every week, transform the plodding pragmatism into something exhilarating.
If only Moyes would understand…
The objective here isn’t to laugh at Manchester United fans or to mock their premature belief in a player – a player who is still only twenty years-old, incidentally – but to capture supporters’ predisposition for embracing minor positives. In the same situation, reflexive caution would have prompted wonderings over Januzaj’s frame, the false context in which he was operating, or the reliability of his future development. But then, with United suffering a first-in-a-generation slump, he was a straight arrow headed for certain, team-altering greatness. It wasn’t quite self-delusion, because Januzaj did briefly shine with…something, but some wilful misinterpretation was clearly at work.
It’s a common phenomenon, because fanbases are prone to lurching. Liverpool supporters used Dani Pacheco’s obvious class (currently playing in the Spanish second division) to whip Roy Hodgson, Everton mis-coronated Danny Cadamarteri, and Tottenham fans have also been liberal with the anointing oil. There are dozens of examples and, almost without exception, they occur at clubs who have or who continue to experience less-than-perfect health – in essence, they appear where they’re needed. It’s not a coincidence, either, that each of the English national team’s recent generations have involved something similar. There’s always a player out there, always a deputised hero ready to eradicate the need for wide-scale reform.
Football is actually a very positive game in which failure and misery facilitate hope, well-founded or otherwise.
At Manchester United, Januzaj represented sanctuary among the floating wreckage. He may be more talented than any of those aforementioned players and his future in the game may yet be very bright, but he still represents the kind of over-enthusiastic talent proclamation which we’re all periodically guilty of and which we all use to comfort ourselves.