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Why do we leave football matches early?

How big does a walkout affect a football team? James thinks too deeply on the topic

Aston Villa v Sheffield United - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

I wanted to use this article to approach the topic of leaving football matches early. I want to make directly clear at the start that this is by no means a stick to beat people with. I don’t want to disrespect the choice of people who leave games early - as there is nothing to be gained from that discussion (and again that relates to our previous talk about entrenching opinions whether we are right or wrong). I don’t want to come off as preachy as well - this is a topic where there may be no clear ‘right’ answer. It’s a topic that people feel passionate about and that much is clear.

So, on Friday Aston Villa salvaged a late point after going down 3-0. They managed to score three goals with time running out to finish it out at 3-3. I’d be interest to see what a match probability index had to say about this game, as I’ve never seen anything like it. Villa were done - we’ll go onto that later - and fans were leaving early.

I’ve talked a lot about the subconscious and the way it relates to our consumption of football in the past. I wonder what activates in our mind when we leave football games without direct action. When a goal flies in and we flip our seat and move on without really ‘thinking’ about it. You see this action all the time.

So if we leave a football match due to the performance or the result, we are either subconsciously ‘done’ with the game, or we are actively showing our disgust with on-pitch performance. I had a conversation earlier where someone stated it was probably the highest form of disrespect.

I know that his opinion is going to be dismissed - but former Villa Assistant Manager Colin Calderwood spoke earlier today to BirminghamLive about his, and Steve Bruce’s last game in charge at Aston Villa - and how there was a tangible atmosphere in the ground that seemed to affect the match. I think the entire piece is worth reading, but here is the snippet that interests me the most.

“There was a feeling in the stands that we had thrown it away before we actually had. I could feel it. It’s important for the fans to support the players on the pitch, especially in that situation.”

So let’s reflect that back to the point. If you’re leaving a game early, well early, because you’re disgusted - that is surely going to have an effect. We can say or think whatever we want but the people actively involved in matchday gameplay say often that gameday atmospheres do have an effect on the game states taking place on a football pitch. What’s more, have you ever seen a football match played without fans or noise? It’s dead. It is ghastly. There can surely be a motivating (or de-motivating) factor to the support given by fans at football matches.

I really want to be careful with my wording here - as I don’t think it right to blame fans for leaving games, after all they are paying - but I believe that either one of two things can happen when there is an unplanned walkout at a stadium. It can either galvanise the team, or it can dig them deeper into a hole. In most circumstances I believe it is the latter. Mass walkouts due to poor performances usually seal the deal. However, in some instances in the right circumstances, you get a bit of fight back - you get a team that is annoyed and fighting back against a fanbase. This isn’t in a bad, nor an aggressive manner; but there is a sense that the side gains an extra edge from the chip on its shoulder afforded by a perceived ‘lack of support’. I’m willing to take a chance and side with that line of thinking.

If you were still there, you’d likely agree that something clicked for Villa at around 75 minutes. They didn’t necessarily play better, but things started to go their way for the first time in a match dominated by poor luck and horrible awareness. Villa seemed galvanised - and seemed to believe that their efforts would pay off, and they did! They grabbed a plucky goal on 82 minutes, then grabbed another a few minutes later and a further goal a few minutes after that. I’d venture to say that with another 2 or 3 minutes, Villa may have even found a winner. They weren’t better and they gameplan didn’t change, but they found momentum and forced Sheffield United to step up - and the crowd backed them all the way.

I really think the crowd started to stand and roar Villa to victory. I really felt that way and once Villa pushed for their first goal, an overwhelming sense of belief hit me. You felt that the impossible was no possible. There is no way that that result should have happened. No way. The game was done and Villa looked impotent. And then they didn’t. I’d like to believe the crowd helped. I’d like to think that. Don’t burst that bubble.

I wonder if leaving early has anything to do with the lack of a review system in football that isn’t booing or hurling abuse. We do not have Yelp or a star-rating. Going back to review sites - I find them rather problematic and smarter people than me have made that point better. One of the common tropes of a review site is the ‘misunderstanding’ - people afford bad reviews to things they don’t understand. If they don’t a strong vocabulary they reject fancy prose. If they don’t like morbidness, they reject morbid books. It’s not just a simple rejection on the review site - but a complete and utter public and commercial rejection of the item placed before them. Money and capital affords the reviewer this power - we purchased something, so that means we are right, or that our opinions are suddenly validated despite the misunderstanding that likely forms the entire basis of our negative review.

In football, we have plenty of misunderstandings. None of us, at all, have any grip on the reality of the modern game of football. We all say the same things when we are slightly unhappy. When we lose we want the chancers gone from our club (even if we are 3rd). We want the board to go away. We want a change in manager. When things go wrong, or slightly wrong - we want and we demand change. As a modern football fan, we are completely unwilling to accept the middle ground and accept that our singular club is not the best club. I’ve discussed this point before and it infects every club. Liverpool fans aren’t happy. Manchester City fans have thrown doom upon their team. Arsenal are always at it and Chelsea are now taking their turn. Everton (9th) are apparently undergoing a woeful season. We perhaps don’t accept the fact that teams are filled to the brim with human players who are often bad at perfecting complex tactical instructions during a fluid game of football. In football, fans can feel voiceless -and may not be acutely aware of the power that they hold as there is no clear review system apart from shouting - so to walk away is perhaps the only way to afford a truly negative review of a football match.

Football doesn’t line up with infrastructure either. Sometimes it’s worth leaving early to miss the traffic that turns an hour-long journey into three - or to get the train that is woefully scheduled at the final whistle of the game. We have to accept that football is failed by infrastructure and that people must leave games early as the games aren’t life. We need to get home at some point and that is easier said than done.

But it must be said - why spend the money just to ‘be’ - do we want to hold our tickets as a status symbol? Do we expect that debt be repaid by the football club in good performances (impossible)? We long for the past and the glories that came with it, but for what? Football teams have always been pretty bad at living up to expectations. I’m genuinely curious and I’m certainly not doubting anybody’s support of Aston Villa.

In my opinion (and this is far less radical than the opinion on the same subject that I held earlier) perhaps it is more cost effective to stay until the dying embers of a football game and show support? We lose a lot of minutes by leaving early if we do not need to. We spend time waiting for that magic, but what if that magic is more likely to occur in the dying seconds of the game than say just after half-time? When players are tiring out and relying on nothing more than instinct as their stamina gives way? If we know that our support can have a tangible effect on a game, why do we discount that? If there is one thing that I can guarantee, it’s that the greatest moments in sporting history usually happen when hope runs dry.

It’s not my question to answer and I am terribly gutted for the fans who left early because they were tired of the performance - as they missed their reward. I understand that leading a troop of tired, unhappy children or looking forward to a marathon journey home after a bad result is something that faces many fans - and I’d not want to remove the validity of their own feelings. There have been many attempts to validate the act of leaving earlier and a small part of me that feels that those who go to great lengths to validate the act of leaving a match very early (like replying to Tammy Abraham’s tweet on the matter) know that they possibly made the wrong judgement. That’s just me thinking out loud, probably wrongly.

I think Tammy summed it up well without pouring scorn on anyone when he said that ‘we [Villa] are a team that never give up and we always believe in ourselves”.

So maybe we should believe in Villa? This squad has its flaws, but it can defy probability and expectations. We shouldn’t be so quick to write them off. Not just yet. I hope we can change our feelings on this team. In the end, I hope we can leave the ‘better fan’ argument that divides us in these situations behind and focus, truly, on how we can better support the club without perceiving one method of support as better than another.

It’s what we pay to do, right?