Armchair Pundit

The unhappiest place on earth

Alex Chick

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A Sunday afternoon in West London

On Sunday night, after the Premier League's weekly Carnival of Hate, I watched the X-Factor results.

The sing-off featured an identikit boy-band called Union J, who wept, wailed and displayed the kind of faces usually reserved for discovering your entire family has been devoured by a flesh-eating virus. They looked like right chumps.

Their opponent was a young mum named Jade Ellis, who smiled, took criticism with good grace and retained her composure. She appeared to have a proper idea of the competition's importance.

Faced with that rare beast - a reality TV contestant with a sense of perspective - the judges predictably booted her out and handed a reprieve to the gibbering Harry Styles clones.

Gary Barlow's assessment of Jade was: "I worry I want this for you more than you do." Translation: "You're not crying enough."

X-Factor may not be much of a singing competition, but as a barometer for where we are as a nation, it has its uses.

Here was proof: enjoying yourself is out. You cannot 'care' with a smile on your face. You have to be miserable and aggrieved.

I mention this because it seems to tally with the predicament in which English football finds itself.

Fans pride themselves on some nebulous quality called 'passion' - but what does this really mean?

Increasingly it means howling obscenities at the opposition, the ref, even your own team.

It means defending the indefensible when one of your players misbehaves, and feigning outrage when a rival steps out of line.

It means railing at perceived injustice week after week, while never acknowledging when your team gets the rub of the green.

It means spending thousands of pounds a year for the right to be indescribably angry for two hours every week.

If you're not deeply unhappy, you just don't care enough.

Passion or poison? We saw at Stamford Bridge on Sunday when Chelsea played Manchester United.

An extraordinary incident encapsulated this, when a steward was thrown from the crowd on to the side of the pitch.

Chelsea had just conceded an offside goal, and so incandescent was the rage that the crowd turned into a wave of pure fury, strong enough to spew men in flourescent tabards on to the pitch.

The 1980s, and Hillsborough in particular, showed the danger of dehumanising football crowds - of forgetting they are individuals and treating them like one great, malign organism.

Yet when you look at fans' behaviour - not only at Stamford Bridge but across the country - you don't want to believe these people have anything to do with you.

How can our species be capable of such spite and malice over something - a game! - that fundamentally doesn't matter?

A supposedly entertaining diversion from life's drudgery has become the focal point for all our frustration and hatred.

Fans are motivated only by negativity. The desire to see rivals suffer has overtaken the wish for our own team to do well.

We can see this in the Everton supporters who chose to 'celebrate' their team's equaliser on Sunday by goading Liverpool fans.

And how about the trailer Sky ran at the start of the season, in which a Chelsea fan describes the moment his team won the Champions League?

He revels in describing thousands of Chelsea followers singing: "Are you watching White Hart Lane?"

Their team has just won the Champions League, and all they can think about is mocking Tottenham.

And this is a trailer, for pity's sake. So pervasive has the culture of spite become that Sky uses it to promote its coverage.

It's like crowds at the Olympic Velodrome ignoring British golds and chanting: "Are you watching Eiffel Tower?"

The cancer of nastiness, it is alleged, has now spread to the man in black.

If accusations against Mark Clattenburg are to be believed - and he is set to deny them formally - the refs have now gone a step further. They are allegedly behaving like players and joining in the name-calling.

Counter-claims in today's papers allege that Chelsea employees joined in the fun by storming Clattenburg's dressing room, where a threat to break his legs was apparently heard.

I grew up when referees were schoolmasters, metaphorically and literally, in the shape of the imperious David Elleray.

Now one of them stands accused of exchanging extreme unpleasantries with the people he is meant to control.

In the immortal words of Richard Keys: "The game's gone mad."

All hope is not lost. Some level heads remain - though not enough. Men like David Moyes, who deadened the burgeoning controversy over Luis Suarez's diving goal celebration stone dead by declaring: "I actually quite liked that."

And isn't he right? Man scores goal, has a light-hearted pop at his critics. Isn't that the sort of thing we used to enjoy?

Juergen Klinsmann's original dive, Gazza's dentist's chair - even Craig Bellamy's golf swing? I distinctly remember thinking all of these were pretty funny.

But in today's game, a sense of humour is a sign of weakness. We have to take offence at everything, and use it as a weapon against our enemies.

This is football in 2012. Welcome to the unhappiest place on earth.

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Alex Chick - Twitter @alexchick81

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