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"Poison": A Rant Regarding On-Field Attitude

Jonathan Ferrey

Are we a little frustrated, then, Vancouver Whitecaps fans?

Having oh-so-confidently predicted the Whitecaps ought to make the playoffs last week, I find myself gritting my teeth for 24 hours straight at Vancouver's 2-1 loss to the Portland Timbers over the weekend. Rob R. Scott pretty much summed up my frustrations, but what leaps out to me in bold, italicized, all-capital letters is that we ought to win that game. Portland is bad at soccer. Their goal differential is tied with Toronto FC's. What the hell are we playing at that we didn't kick the crap out of those bastards?!

I am ready to march down to BC Place with a pitchfork and a torch, not because I think the Whitecaps are in the midst of catastrophe or that there's some serious problem with this organization but because, as a fan as well as a writer, I'm angry and I'm bewildered and I'm disappointed. I want to shout and scream not because the Whitecaps are an incompetent organization (or because I think this team will miss the playoffs; thanks Los Angeles Galaxy!), but because shouting and screaming feels good if your team has lost three in a row when a month ago we'd have been horrified to not get four points out of nine.

I think Barry Robson knows how I feel. He shouts and he throws his arms up and he wears his heart on his sleeve when he's frustrated, which has been often lately. The trouble is that Robson is actually a Whitecap and I'm just some fat guy who writes about them. Surely he should be held to a higher standard of behaviour.

Those of you familiar with my clumsy segues can anticipate my next point. If you're looking for a scapegoat for this three-game slump, blaming Barry Robson's hand gestures makes about as much sense as blaming the weather.

It would be one thing to criticize Robson's play, and I think even that would be premature; he's an attacking midfielder and he isn't Lionel Messi so no, he isn't going to pull the Whitecaps on his back and drag them to victory on days when his forwards can't get open and misfire when they do. He does have his flaws, too; poor at keeping possession, thinks his shot from distance is somewhat better than it is, and hasn't figured out the speed of MLS quite yet.

In the comments of his last article, Rob went so far as to call Robson "poison". And if that were isolated frustration I'd ignore it, but it echoes a sentiment expressed by a multitude of Whitecaps fans. Is Barry Robson's attitude actually hurting this team?

Don't be ridiculous.

When a player is as loud as Robson and the team is winning, it's called leadership. When the team is losing, it's called being abrasive. In fact, either way it shouldn't make that much of a difference. It's one thing to drag your team down by sulking and giving it half-effort; that hurts and it's easy to see why. But with professional players, more passion is almost always what you want.

Jay DeMerit can be every inch the shouter Robson is. The differences are that DeMerit is a popular player because of his community work (we know he must be a good guy because everyone can see it), we're used to it from him (there was some criticism at the beginning of last season, you may recall), and he doesn't wave his arms around so you can't hear it on television with the crowd roaring in the background. I haven't heard anyone seriously suggest DeMerit's leadership has cost us anything, because that would be stupid.

The comparison is pretty apt. Both DeMerit and Robson have been given leadership roles by serious clubs: DeMerit captained Watford, Robson captained Dundee United and was vice-captain at Middlesbrough. Both are proven leaders with high marks for attitude and leadership from fans over the pond. They seem to go well together, with DeMerit rallying the defense and Robson trying to bring the same energy to a midfield and an attack which largely lacks vocal veterans (John Thorrington might count when in the lineup but he is not Robson's calibre). Again, the only difference seems to be that we're not used to Robson, and his gesturing makes him more visible. But it should make no difference to his teammates.

Now, if Robson was shouting abuse, that would be different. The instant a player starts telling his teammates "hello", "goodbye", and "fuck off" like some Scottish Tomasz Radzinski, I have no time for him. But Robson isn't abusing his players, and even when he gives voice to his frustration it's no different than what you and I have heard on the pickup field when we're caught a day late or a dollar short and our team suffers for it. And look what fine fellows we've become.

If the Whitecaps genuinely are playing less than their best because they can't take Robson waving his arms, beaking at referees, and generally being loud, then my question isn't "why is Robson so vocal?" but "why are the Whitecaps such wimps?" These are professional athletes, for heaven's sake, and Robson's had success with the same techniques in better leagues than this; if somebody in Major League Soccer can't be counted on to play with Robson then what the hell are they doing here? I don't believe for a second this is actually a problem, but if it were that would be my reaction.

What about Robson chirping the referees? Is that costing us goodwill and thus points? First, if it is we're already behind the eight-ball: Martin Rennie telling the fourth official his opinion has become almost famous. And you won't find a team in Major League Soccer without players (and sometimes coaches) telling the referees off. This is because the referees stink and you'd have to be a saint not to tell them so. This is not Whitecaps-specific and it certainly isn't Barry Robson-specific. If MLS referees are going to punish every team that criticizes their calls nobody's going to have any players left.

Luckily I don't think that is why the Whitecaps are losing; we got 99 problems but bitching ain't one.