IT WAS interesting to read in a well-known football magazine that a columnist, normally so perceptive and accurate in his writing, should be highlighting “anger” in the stands as something that represented an emerging pattern of behaviour.
I can only assume he has rarely sat in the stands or stood on the terraces in his career, for anger and resentment when the opposition scores a goal was always commonplace in the game. Actually, it never went away.
We live in a world where people are afraid or discouraged to say what they really think. School children are given reports that talk of “deferred success” when what the teachers need to say is “you’re not up to it yet” and corporate life revolves around removing people that do not fit the bill but rarely tell them where they’re going wrong. We maim and insult people, but not to their face.
Social media has made long-established events and routines into vile, discriminatory affairs, but nobody is held accountable – witness the horrid UK Brexit vote, the UK election, the rise of extreme left bullies, resurgent anti-semitism, the persistence of extreme right factions. We have become a rather cowardly nation in many ways.
Football crowds still have elements of racism, sexism, homophobia, tribalism and violence, but nobody admits to it – if it was down to the authorities, we would all count-down to kick-off, wave silly plastic objects, hold specially-placed flags and Mexican wave our way through 90 minutes. In other words, an artificial environment where everyone smiles, buys the merchandise, eats the poor quality food and drink and joins in the party games. This is the football “experience” that bodies like FIFA are championing today.
Of course, it does depend where you watch your football, but generally, grudging reaction to an opposition goal has always been prevalent in the British game. Back in 1985, I applauded Manchester United’s Mark Hughes when he scored a cracking goal at Stamford Bridge. As a Chelsea fan, I shouldn’t have done that and my reward was a clump round the head by another Blues fan – this was in the East Stand lower tier of the ground and I am sure it was a well-known and much-revered Chelsea face that did the clumping.
More recently, I was present at the FA Cup final in 2011 at Wembley and my ticket was among the Stoke City fans. Delighted to be at their first FA Cup final, they were raucous, to say the least, and a section of them were very keen to identify anyone not wearing a club shirt and screaming abuse at them as non-believers. “Just fuck off out of our section…fucking neutrals,” they shouted. It was positively intimidating. Moreover, when Manchester City scored their winning goal – and when the final whistle went – Stoke’s fans hurled abuse at anyone they could find.
Stadium design and tighter security mean that the old days of groups of fans “taking” ends or “running” the opposition are long gone, but removing aggression from football is a near impossible task. Given that the audience is still male dominated and of a certain age, aggression is never far from the surface. At the FA Cup final in May 2017, I experienced, once more, how this can overflow and create potential problems.
Chelsea equalised and the block of seats I was sitting in, £100-plus tickets, erupted. Behind me, a mid-20s lad jumped on my back to celebrate. Now as I’m almost 60 years old, I was never going to lurch around like an extra from Dante’s inferno so I pushed him off me as my vertebrae started to crack. He wasn’t having it and jumped back onto me, this time my spectacles falling off. I pushed him back again and this time, he wanted to have a fight. His eyes were rolling, veins in his head were bulging and he expected a brawl. Luckily, his friends pulled him away, but it shows how irrational and angry football fans can be. It hasn’t changed, it never will.
The magazine article reminded me of the shock and horror that some media men expressed when a group of Chelsea fans behaved appallingly in Paris a couple of years ago. Sometimes I wonder if people perched in the more privileged quarters of a stadium get a feel for what really goes at a match.
There are, of course, some who yearn for the days when a stadium was a partisan cauldron. The modern game has driven many of these elements out of football – most English stadiums are fairly sedate, hence overseas fans provide much of the soundtrack when they go to Premier grounds in the Champions League.
There must be a happy medium. Nobody wants to hear “you’ll never make the station”, “we’ll see you all outside” or “you’re going to get your fucking heads kicked in” at a sporting event. But you can have passion without violence and anger and resentment should not be interpreted as a major problem – unless it evolves into a major problem, that is. People are naturally disappointed when their team loses or concedes a goal and there was a time when football was recognised as a place for people to let off steam. If it becomes a crime to do that, then over-gentrification will have stifled the life out of the British game.
Photo: Jon Candy via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0