“Everyone has an opinion now. Its opinion without accountability. But I don't need mollycoddling. I'm a big bloke. I accept stick. I've got to.” So speaks Gareth Southgate, sounding more than a little bit like he fancies a spot of mollycoddling.
He may have an account on some Boro message boards, perhaps with “I'll learn lessons from this” as a signature, but its unlikely. Anyone can record their views for all to see – its the focus of modern media - but Gareth is Not A Fan.
To a large extent its possible to sympathise. The internet has democratised access for fans and too many abuse that by contributing ill-informed drivel laced with poisonous cynicism and aggression towards anyone who might disagree.
It allows half-truths and misinterpretations to become FACT. On the one hand, the club risks accusations of being secretive and aloof if Lamb or Gibson aren't wheeled out for the Gazette or Radio Brownlee every couple of months. On the other, you have to wonder why they bother when their words are so frequently skewed and turned against them.
Keith Lamb's comments about Teesside eventually getting 'the club it can afford' were a classic case. It was a perfectly reasonable comment – as we're all painfully aware now, there is no way a club attracting crowds in the mid 20,000s could maintain Premier League expenditure without borrowing or a benefactor. No club can rely on such factors forever. Instead, this interview is frequently cited as a stick to beat the club with, “afford” replaced with “deserve”.
Similarly, 'the club earns more from walk up sales than season ticket holders' and 'we earned more from TV than we did from ticket sales' become not simple economic facts but a slur on those who commit money up front for another 9 months of punishment.
This does all of us a disservice. When Steve McClaren had the team halfway up the Premier League and playing in Europe, it was easy to dismiss the grumblers as a lunatic fringe. Southgate might like to draw a line under it but it was a matter of months ago that the club were relegated, breaking the club record for consecutive away defeats and scoring fewer goals than any other team in the country. If that doesn't legitimise a certain amount of protest then what does?
The manager, chairman and chief executive all subjected themselves to trial by phone-in over the summer, which they deserve credit for. The ever-growing band of militant opponents might not have got the public self-flagellation they demanded but all three politely defended their position in the face of some vehement criticism that missed the target more often than Afonso Alves bearing down on goal.
Southgate's comments were a cop-out, an attempt to deflect dissent by smearing all critics, whether valid or not, as jaundiced and irrational. Under any other chairman than Gibson, to openly claim that “it doesn't matter what the fans think about me” would be tempting fate. He shouldn't be worried about the fans booing him as much as the thousands who are now staying at home.
But when genuine insight and valid comment from fans is buried under bile and invective, it just the excuse needed to dismiss criticism. Fans have contributed to the tone of debate, taking polarised views on complex, nuanced issues and allowing senior figures to wriggle off the hook by repeating urban myths. Until that changes, as fans of the club, we'll get the level of scrutiny we deserve.
This article will be also be available from men with fluorescent Evening Gazette bags in Saturday's Fly Me To The Moon.