Yesterday, LOVS saw a passionate defence of some of the individuals picked out for recent criticism within our squad. We saw them described as "scapegoats". What prompted this was the degree of criticism levelled at Liam Trotter and Dean Moxey in particular at the weekend. This got me thinking - was this unreasonable? Should the players be immune to criticism when the team is doing well? Or can we still expect better?
I can understand why there should be a limit on the criticism given out to players - they are all still human beings, with feelings, hopes, fears and aspirations. Running around kicking a football for a living should not make them targets for the kind of abuse some of them seem to receive on twitter on a regular basis. Booing your own players while at the match always seemed particularly counter-productive to me, at times when they really probably need the fans behind them to boost their confidence. But fans venting their frustration at particularly poor performances, especially players who are consistently poor, on radio phone-ins, twitter, forums, and dare I say it writing on this very website? A degree of that is legitimate.
Does this make players like Trotter and Moxey scapegoats? I don't think so. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a "scapegoat" as "a person who is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others, especially for reasons of expediency." I don't think they were scapegoats this weekend. They were individually poor, by a long chalk the worst players on the pitch, which is why they were both substituted, and the team improved once they left the pitch. The rest of the team were playing better than they were, not the other way round. Others, like Ben Alnwick, found themselves "scapegoated" because of it.
I'll continue with Trotter and Moxey as examples, not because of any personal vendetta, or because I believe either to be a bad footballer, but because both were individually poor against Bradford and I think were fair game for post-match criticism. Both also make good examples because they highlight another reason why fans sometimes target individual players - symbolism.
Both players have good pedigree, and so expectations were high when each signed. Dean Moxey arrived with a great track record of promotion from the championship as a first-team regular with Crystal Palace, before going on to make 20 premiership appearances in the next season. He'd been selected as part of a back 4 by Tony Pulis, a man who does not suffer defensive fools gladly. Liam Trotter arrived with a reputation as a box-to-box midfielder with an eye for goal, having scored 22 goals in 125 games for Millwall. These weren't just young lads being given a chance, or journeymen brought in to shore up the squad. Both are players who have already shown themselves capable of performing well in the championship. Both, also, were given contracts to match these expectations...
Wages are often used as a stick to beat players with, as if there is some kind of predictable scale where each incremental increase in wage equates to a definite improvement in the overall quality of player earning the money, and we all know deep down that it doesn't work like that. Players all have their own attributes, and can outperform when given the right role, but struggle when played out of position. Liam Trotter clearly lacks the pace, awareness and stamina to adequately replace Jay Spearing in screening the back 3, but his goalscoring record for Millwall suggests he could have a role further forward if afforded space by other hardworking midfielders. Except we don't play that way, and so he doesn't fit into our team. But he's stuck with us because of his contract, and we are stuck with him.
Having said all that, it's ultimately the wages being paid out to these players who aren't suited to our style of play that really marks them out as symbolic of what has been going wrong at the club. We have an enormous wage bill as a league one club. We continually hear stories of how close the club has been, and still is, to going into administration. Stories of how backroom staff at the club have had to go without being paid at times as the club limps on. Of how we had to sell our brightest prospect and local hero for a pittance to keep the club going until the end of the season. Stories of accounts not filed on time, winding-up petitions, being hauled up in court by HMRC...
Then we see these players who have performed well for other clubs one or even two divisions above where they find themselves now, earning 3 or 4 times the average wage for the division, having rings run around them. Neither even looked close to league one standard at the weekend. Symbolic? Yes. Scapegoats? I don't think so.