Pieces of Hate: Armchair Scouts

April 8, 2010.  A watershed date for football. Not because Roy Hodgson’s Fulham battered Wolfsburg to book themselves a place in the Europa League semi-finals and certainly not because Roberto Martinez was charged with improper conduct, but because Javier Hernandez signed for Manchester United.

Even now, harking back through the archives of the internet, most major news outlet covered that story the same way. With eyebrows raised and heads scratched. A huge club dropping big money on a complete unknown? They must be mad, surely.

Even the comment sections of these articles, so often a fountain of insight, opinion, and thinly veiled social prejudice, followed the same tone.

“Doesn’t look like he’ll cope with the physicality of the prem” commented MickeyT on the Mail Online. “Never heard of him. why r UTD signing him when we need to get David Villa” mused Geniestra on 606. “HAHA he looks like Sigourney Weaver” noted TheGreatOne07 on GuardianSport.

What’s so special about any of this? It was the last time that a major English club plucked a first-
team player from total obscurity, and fans en masse happily admitted that they had no idea who he was.

Nobody pretended to be an expert on Liga MX, nobody dropped in his goal record for the Mexican Under 21s. This fine nations’ footballing public were united and revelling in their own ignorance.

Fast forward to January of this year, when Real Madrid plucked 16 year old Martin Odegaard frommidtable Norwegian side Strømsgodset. Within hours of the deal being announced he was the number one trending topic on Twitter, a dozen ‘best skills and tricks’ videos found their way onto YouTube, and think pieces about both his ability and potential flooded every footballing website.

Strømsgodset’s average attendance is somewhere in the region of 6,000 people, I’m sure the club were fascinated to discover that most of them are apparently British journalists and bloggers.

In the last five years, it’s all changed. You are not allowed to not know about a player now and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a professional or a punter.

How we all got from cave drawings of South American wonderkids to the dawn of football’s Age of Enlightenment is open to debate. Some will tell you that popularity of games like Football Manager, with its comprehensive database and unrivalled look into the future of player development, has turned us all from armchair pundits to armchair scouts. They might be right, but the catalyst of this thirst for knowing was, of all people, Alan Shearer.

A few months after the aforementioned Hernandez transfer, Newcastle’s latest acquisition Hatem Ben Arfa scored an eye-catching winner against Everton. That evening on Match of the Day, Alan Shearer sat legs akimbo in his chair, rolled out all the usual stock phrases, and shrugged his shoulders. “Nobody really knows much about him”, he muttered. Within moments, the internet was ablaze.

The show’s producers will have known immediately that this was an awful segment, but they still probably only expected a few snide remarks in the canteen and, at worst, a strongly worded letter on Points of View. Instead they opened their curtains the next morning to a mob of furious bloggers and tweeters calling the show out on its irrelevance. Stan Collymore – presumably a Marseille season ticket holder – was incredulous at Shearer’s lack of knowledge and led the charge in calling the show’s pundits “dinosaurs”. It’s almost as if Big Al hadn’t snapped Ben Arfa up on Football Manager 2008 and watched him develop into one of the game’s best AMRs. After all, the rest of us did.

Five years later, the BBC have just about managed to scrape Shearer’s brains off the studio walls and the show now aims to be a lot more cerebral in its approach. Treading the line somewhere between a Carlsberg advert of three blokes in a pub, and a zonalmarking.net chalkboard – admittedly with mixed results.

Where the UK’s flagship football show leads, the rest of us  naturally follow, and this state of never being caught out over a player has gradually crept its way into modern parlance. If Robbie Savage is going to claim to have seen Lazar Marković during his Benfica days, then so will your mate Tony once he gets a pint in his hand.

You must know about absolutely everyone, or else you risk being cast out of the conversation completely. Even right now, as you’re reading this article, Alan Hansen is sat at home pricing a new golfing glove because he didn’t know Santi Cazorla would be just as effective as a deep playmaker as he would a right winger. Either he never bought him on FIFA Ultimate Team or he wasn’t illegally streaming mid-table La Liga clashes.

Few will miss him, of course. Hansen knew nothing of the Championship’s most underrated strikers and looked like he was going to be sick the first time he had to pronounce César Azpilicueta, but he could talk for hours about how to organise a defence. He might have known about very little, but he certainty knew a lot about it. Now the necessity is to know about a lot, no matter how little it is you know.

John Naisbitt, one of the world’s foremost thinkers on Future Studies (which I presume involves robots and hoverboards), is quoted as saying “we are drowning in information but starved for knowledge”. While he probably wasn’t talking about people who claim to be avid watchers of the Eredivise every time an Ajax player moves to England, his words so neatly surmise this tedious era of football fandom.

Whether you’re being paid to have an opinion or you’re just batting around transfer rumours with your mates, sometimes it’s ok to admit you don’t know anything. I promise, a pleasant surprise is twice as rewarding as saying “I told you so”. Just ask those Man United fans who saw their otherwise unheard of new Mexican score on his debut at Wembley.


You can follow Adam Clery on Twitter and tell him that *everyone* knew about Javier Hernandez and that if he doesn’t like it he can f**k off and watch the rugby (@adamclery)

Alternatively, you can tell us instead. Is football more fun when it doesn’t feel like you’re constantly revising for an exam that you’re never allowed to take, or is knowledge power? Email us on [email protected] or click this link and fill in the forms

Pieces of Hate: Armchair Scouts
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