Yet in other ways, the campaign hasn’t been that different at all. One aspect that hasn’t changed from prior seasons is managers being severely under pressure from supporters. Even though they aren’t allowed into stadiums, social media has granted your average fan the means in which to vent their frustration and organise outdoor protests against the stewardship of their club. It’s led to a number of changes across the board with no fewer than six top-flight sides opting for a new man in the dugout than the one who started the campaign.
In 2020/21, there have been a few big names caught in the crosshairs. Neil Lennon found himself the ire of Celtic supporters up and down the country for making a disastrous mess of the club’s ten-in-a-row hopes. Then Derek McInnes’ long-standing tenure as Aberdeen boss came to an end following a run of one goal scored in nine games.
Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson looks like the next manager who has reached the point of no return. The Jam Tarts retain a healthy lead atop the Championship table, but it hasn’t been enough to pacify those who are sick of seeing their team struggle against clubs a fraction the size of the Tynecastle outfit – not to mention suffering what many are calling the single worst result in the club’s history with the Scottish Cup defeat to Brora Rangers.
A commonality in all three cases is a dissonance between what supporters are saying and what those on the SPFL and SFA’s broadcasting partners are paid to say. Pundits, typically ex-players, largely backed Lennon until it was past the point of no return, did the same with McInnes until the end and are doing likewise with Neilson. Chris Sutton, a ubiquitous figure in Scottish football commentary these days, just last week described it as “utterly ridiculous” and “utter nonsense” for Hearts fans to want Neilson’s head.
That’s startlingly forceful and belittling language to use; the kind those few remaining Neilson defenders in the lengthy list of Foundation of Hearts contributors wouldn’t even go as far as using.
The regular rotation of pundits on BBC radio have adopted a stance similar to Sutton’s – though not quite in such strong terms. The general disbelief seems to revolve around the question of how fans can be unhappy when their team is top of the league, and the notion there has been a massive overreaction to ‘a few bad results’. Such statements echo those used before Lennon’s departure (‘he’s a club legend’, ‘you can’t expect to win the title every year’) and also for McInnes (‘look at what Aberdeen were like before he arrived’).
At best, these comments drastically miss the point. It’s not about where the club has been or currently is, it’s where it’s headed. Hearts fans knew this too well towards the end of Craig Levein’s tenure and they were proven right. The former manager should have been jettisoned much sooner – something owner Ann Budge later admitted herself. With their team toiling to defeat the likes of Arbroath and Queen of the South, they don’t want to wait and find out to see what will happen with the current leadership when they face Aberdeen and Hibs next term. Similarly, Celtic fans recognised the writing on the wall when their team put in thoroughly unconvincing performances earlier in the season and yet Lennon remained in the job until the chance of ten-in-a-row was all but a mathematical impossibility.
At worst, it’s a dismissive and disdainful attitude towards those that make up the lifeblood of football in this country – and in the toughest year that lifeblood has experienced to date.
Nobody knows a football team better than a die-hard supporter. So why are their opinions often treated as an irrelevance or an annoyance?
The old put-down used to be ‘they’ve never played the game so what do they know?’ The rise of wildly successful managers – like former Celtic hero Brendan Rodgers – who didn’t have success or failed to even reach the professional level have lifted the credibility out of that dismissal. It’s largely since been replaced with ‘it’s just social media’.
Putting aside the ridiculousness of dismissing social media opinions when it’s literally the only measure available in a season where fans can’t attend matches, it also paints too broad a picture of its downsides.
Twitter, like all social media, can certainly become a cesspool with users freely able to abuse others without fair justification or fear of comeuppance. However, spend any time looking around a club’s Twitter-sphere and you’ll find a litany of opinions which give an overall broad view of what supporters feel. Just because a fan decided to create a Twitter account one day doesn’t mean they automatically think [insert manager name] is rubbish at his job.
Instead of dismissing, the authoritative voices in our game should not be resting on their laurels or past glories. They should be reaching out and try to understand the position of a supporters base. They don’t have to agree with it, but they should pay it the respect it deserves.