x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Aston Villa fans have right to vent on Houllier even if the way be wrong

Negative comments scribbled on a bedsheet may not help team morale, but it is still a fan's right to vent his anger.

Gerard Houllier, the Aston Villa manager, has endured a tough time at the club. Neal Simpson / Empics
Gerard Houllier, the Aston Villa manager, has endured a tough time at the club. Neal Simpson / Empics

As sloganeering goes, it was not very impressive.

"Had Enough, Houllier Out" painted in childish block capitals on to an old bed sheet hung from the Holte End at Villa Park is hardly the stuff of Madison Avenue. The copyright symbol added by its proud creator was probably superfluous.

Certainly, the Aston Villa manager will have seen better banners during his time at Liverpool, where no lofty slogan was considered too pretentious for rendering in Kopite embroidery.

The grand proclamations draped over Anfield generally spoke of brotherhood, honour and destiny - proving that Liverpudlians have poetry in their hearts, or at least a copy of Gladiator in their DVD players.

Still, in its own dour, Birmingham fashion, the Holte End banner did its job.

Its creator, whose association with Aston Villa no doubt precedes (and will exceed) Houllier and the owner Randy Lerner's, was unhappy with his team's performance under Houllier. He chose to express that unhappiness in written form, without using foul language or abuse.

In most free societies, that is his right. But a modern Premier League football club is not a free society. The banner was removed within minutes by stewards.

For the record, although I understand the banner writer's frustration, I abhor his moronic, knee-jerk and short-sighted call to sack Houllier after just six months and at such a crucial stage of the season. But, like Voltaire, another well-known Frenchman once said, I will defend to the death his right to say it. OK, not to the death, exactly, but I will write this article.

Why should a fan be stopped from expressing negative views of his team via a homemade banner?

Do they fear it will damage team morale? If so, they should eject any fan caught booing their own team. Such jeering must be more disheartening than a banner to players who may struggle to read English (and that includes the English ones).

Is it because Houllier is so thin-skinned that he cannot bear to read criticism? Although this theory holds water - as a journalist in Liverpool during the Houllier years, I heard tales of sports reporters being hauled into his office to "discuss" their articles, which were already laid out on his desk, with offending passages highlighted - I do not believe it was the case here.

Perhaps it was simply an overzealous steward or police officer, ready to justify their stifling of free speech with the usual hokum about crowd safety: the sheet might have flapped in the breeze and obscured someone's view/knocked over their coffee/startled a pigeon, etc.

My primary suspicion, however, is that the banner was removed by some Villa suit because grumpy fans do not fit the sanitised, sponsor-pleasing, Fifa-approved image of modern football.

We know, from watching adverts, the football fans we are supposed to be. We are young, happy and good-looking. We smile, wear replica shirts and wave only positive banners, or preferably giant foam hands, bought from the club shop. Sorry, I mean Megastore. Ideally, we arrive at the match with our wives and children, or perhaps an ethnically diverse friendship group.

What we are not supposed to be is dour, angry little men who spent the last 24 hour daubing paint on to our mother's second best bed sheets. Well, sorry but real life is not a commercial. Let the angry fan have his say. It is his club - you are just passing through.

Hey, I quite like that last sentence. I might go and scrawl it on a sheet. Copyright me, of course.

Trying times can cause confusion

Do you remember where you were on Saturday March 19, at 3.21pm (GMT) when the news broke? Of course you do. We all do, and always will.

I was helping my father in the garden when mother rushed outside, flour still on her hands and a worried look etched across her face.

“Come quickly,” she said, beckoning us inside. Father and I stood in the kitchen in muddied boots, such was our haste to gather around the wireless.

As it crackled into life, emotionless BBC tones conveyed the news that the international community had both feared and yearned for. The Scotland rugby union team had finally scored a try at Murrayfield. It was their first in two years, followed nine minutes later by a second.

“Well, that’s that, then,” said my father, and returned to his vegetable patch.

“I am sure it is for the best,” said my mother anxiously. “It is what the people want, after all.”

Meanwhile, at Murrayfield itself, there were reports of some children crying with confusion when the scores were made.

“Daddy, why did our man run away with the ball then put it down on the ground like that?” asked Jimmy McTavish, six, from West Lothian. “Does he not want to play any more?”

“No, son, that’s a try,” said his father. “It means he’s scored five points.”

“Five points? But I can only add up in threes! And even then, not very high.”

“Aye son,” came the reply. “Me too.”

“Daddy, do you think when I grow up, that maybe I can score a try for Scotland?”

“Only if we’re playing Italy, son. Only if we’re playing Italy.”