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To boo - or not to boo?

As the sound of booing becomes more prevalent at Reading home matches, URZZ1871 asks if it’s ever acceptable – or helpful - to show your displeasure so obviously during games.

Shaun Cumming, who has commented on the effect supporter negativity has on players' performances.
Shaun Cumming, who has commented on the effect supporter negativity has on players' performances.
Harry Engels

As happens at most clubs at regular intervals, debate has broken out amongst Reading supporters over whether it’s reasonable to ever boo your team. This follows the home defeat to Wigan last week, when Reading went in at half time to noticeable boos, and has been brought further to the fore by the comments of Shaun Cummings saying that hearing boos during home games is not helping Reading perform, and the entry of Gareth McCleary into the debate on Twitter.

And the obvious answer, of course, is that Cummings is right. No-one, surely, whatever job they do, can perform to their best in an environment where mistakes are criticised so loudly. It would have to be an extraordinarily detached or thick-skinned player who would be able to remain oblivious to such vocal criticism – if supporters believe that they are able to lift a team by their vocal support, then it follows that negative feedback will have the opposite effect.

If nothing else, it will create an environment where no-one ever tries anything new, or takes any risks. When you’re expecting any mistake to be criticised, it’s only human to always play it safe, and whenever possible to give someone else the responsibility to do something. So obvious negativity can only sap confidence and creativity, resulting in a team which always takes the easy option, plays easy (and predictable) passes and doesn’t shoot until they’re in a position where they feel certain to score – very much like the team we see at the moment, in fact.

But, of course, there’s a bit more to it than that. Just why do people boo?

For starters, I don’t think anyone makes a conscious decision to boo – there’s no thought process which says "Booing can be so motivational – if I show my displeasure it’ll make the players try harder/concentrate more/make fewer mistakes." And, similarly, surely no-one sits and thinks to themselves "If I boo them, the players will respond by playing better…"

Instead, I think people booing is an involuntary and natural reaction to what they are seeing – people who care passionately about their team showing spontaneous frustration when things go wrong. It’s unfortunate but it’s really inevitable – in the passion and emotion of supporting your team, people will react to what happens. They’re supporters, they’re passionate, they show their feelings – it’s life.

And although on a rational level people may understand completely that booing doesn’t help the team, on an emotional level it’s natural – and supporting your team is something you do primarily on an emotional level, not a rational one. If most of us took a step back and looked, calmly and rationally, at the time, money and energy we put into being football supporters, we’d think twice about it. But we’re hooked on an emotional level – so we react emotionally to what happens.

Because even for those who won’t boo, there’s a similar phenomenon which I think is just as negative. I’m talking about the collective sigh or the loud groan which echoes around the ground when a promising attack breaks down with a misplaced pass or a silly mistake. That’s entirely involuntary but is also a clear verbal reflection of mass disappointment, so I’d be very interested to hear, if any players happen to read this, what the difference between this and actual booing is.

There’s one other aspect or relevance in this debate, also. Many complain that supporters’ expectations have increased out of all proportion over recent years. That’s undoubtedly true, but that’s surely inevitable in today’s football. When football is cheap and easy it’s easier to take it less seriously, but when tickets cost a minimum of £25, and going to a match has to be planned in advance like a military operation, supporters have invested more than just their emotions and 90-odd minutes of their time in the match. So the greater the cost and effort invested, the more likely they are to feel they have the right to voice their displeasure when things aren’t going the way they want. Again, it’s not a rational way of thinking, but again it’s inevitable – and perhaps the over-high expectations amongst some aren’t helped by the ever-upbeat positivity relentlessly pumped out by the club’s media machine.

In summary, we’re in a vicious circle – Cummings is right that negativity from the stands has a negative effect on the players, but he also has to understand that supporters are, by definition, creatures of emotion, who react to what happens on the pitch, and so when things go badly some will voice their displeasure. And I’m not sure how we break the cycle we’re in – perhaps the best thing would be something that has broken this in the past - a couple of outrageous refereeing decisions, which would allow players and supporters to unite against a common enemy. After all, some of the loudest noises I’ve ever heard from Reading crowds have been in criticism of referees – as a crowd we’re always better at criticising others than supporting our own team.

PS – just for the record, I’ve never booed anyone on a football pitch –or at least no-one not wearing an opposition strip, or not carrying a flag or whistle. And I’m not defending anyone who does boo – but I’m not condemning them either,As the sound of booing becomes more prevalent at Reading home matches, URZZ1871 asks if it’s ever acceptable – or helpful - to show your displeasure so obviously during games. as I can understand why they show their displeasure.