Wout Weghorst, the ‘This Is Anfield’ sign and some performative, daft anger from Man Utd fans
Wout Weghorst is in trouble with a tiny subset of very angry Manchester United supporters for the heinous crime of touching the ‘This is Anfield’ sign.
In the aftermath of their 7-0 mauling at Liverpool in the Premier League on Sunday afternoon, there was no shortage of scapegoats for angry Manchester United supporters. If anything, it’s a easier to put together a list of those who emerged from their worst league defeat since Boxing Day 1931 with their reputations untarnished.
But this result came out of the blue to such an extent that the post-match recriminations have started to become somewhat muddled. The debate over Bruno Fernandes and The Importance of the Captaincy has already reached saturation point, with defences already being offered after he was hauled over the coals by Gary Neville on Sky Sports. Erik ten Hag may have got it tactically wrong on this occasion, but he still has plenty of credit in the bank from the transformation that he’s already led the team through this season. Harry Maguire didn’t play. And Marcus Rashford foolishly drove his car.
For a proportion of supporters, a scapegoat has been found and it comes in the form of man-mountain Wout Weghorst, and the crime with which he has been charged is amongst the most heinous imaginable. He touched the Anfield sign and with that, it has been decided (by a statistically tiny number of very angry and very online United supporters), he has broken some sort of unwritten code and must now be summarily drummed out of the club.
It seems fair to say that Weghorst was an unusual signing for United to make in January. To a point, it made logical sense. The club isn’t exactly awash with money, and an international striker on a long-term loan to the end of the season afforded their recruitment department a little more time to look for a more permanent solution. And he was another player with whom Erik ten Hag was already very familiar.
But this was not an arrival that was ever likely to quicken the pulse of the club’s supporters. Weghorst’s only involvement in the Premier League had been a half-season last year, when he gallantly failed to lead Burnley’s attack to the goals they needed to keep them in the top flight.
And while their build doesn’t have to be an indicator of a footballer’s ability or even skill-set – as can be demonstrated in the absurd commentary that Lisandro Martinez couldn’t possibly be a central defender because he’s 5’9″ tall – it did seem a little unusual that United had settled on this particular player, who felt a little like the answer to a question that no-one asked. With Marcus Rashford having hit an incredible hot streak, it didn’t feel as though signing him was addressing any particular issue beyond a lack of depth.
But in several other key respects, Weghorst hits the target as a convenient symbol of Everything That Has Gone Wrong. He hasn’t been at Manchester United for very long, hasn’t played especially well – he’s scored once in 14 games in all competitions since arriving at Old Trafford – and he’s not the sort of gigantic target man readily associated with the club. How dare he touch the sign that reminds players about to take the pitch at Anfield of where they are about to play football?
The sign itself was introduced by former manager Bill Shankly “to remind our lads who they’re playing for and to remind the opposition who they’re playing against”. And while it’s long been a well-known symbol at Anfield, it was only when Jurgen Klopp became the manager that a new rule was introduced saying that only those who had won something for the club were able to touch it as they took to the pitch, when there had long been some who did so before every game. This rule doesn’t seem to be set in stone; it’s been reported that Cody Gakpo touched it on Sunday, despite only joining Liverpool in January.
Of course, Jurgen Klopp’s rules for Liverpool players mean nothing, so far as Manchester United and Erik ten Hag are concerned. So where is this anger coming from? Because it certainly doesn’t seem to have come from anyone at Liverpool. Weghorst responded to the criticism by explaining why he did so, which The Sun picked up on gleefully with helpful comments from the terminally online. And fair enough, his explanation was a little bit lame – it was an attempt to wind up Virgil Van Dijk by stopping him from touching it, apparently – but still that raises the question of whether this is really something worth getting quite so aerated over. (It’s not).
No-one really does this sort of pearl-clutching moralising quite like the football supporter, who will turn a fetching shade of puce as they scream insults uninterrupted at players for 90 minutes but will run screaming that something must be done should a player give anything back whatsoever in their direction which offends their precious sensibilities.
Would Weghorst have been such a target had he scored, say, 11 or 12 goals in his 14 appearances? Of course he wouldn’t. He’s no more than an easy target for those who want to performatively express their visceral anger at having lost this particular football match by the surprisingly large margin that they did.
There may be some who believe that he’s somehow betrayed Manchester United by showing respect to Liverpool. These people have probably forgotten that Sir Matt Busby played more than a hundred games for Liverpool before the outbreak of World War II. He never apologised for having done so. Perhaps those who believe that Weghorst should be fired from a cannon into the sun for disloyalty also believe that the statue of Busby at Old Trafford should be taken down, too.
This is daft anger built upon daft anger, to the point at which perhaps being performative is the point in itself. Make a point of publicly displaying just how much this means to you, and you bolster your credentials as a ‘real fan’. And perhaps the point of this whole confection is that it is a fight over hot air. It encapsulates many of football’s foibles, from taking itself too seriously to wild, borderline unhinged shouting. Sometimes in taking itself far too seriously, football can end up looking really quite funny.
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