Is everyone ready for the full, uncensored fan experience?

AT the FA Cup final, Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell was jeered every time he touched the ball. In the stands, one press photographer caught site of some fans abusing Leicester players. Supporters have been celebrating and protesting, causing some civil disturbance, and some jeered the Black Lives Matter “taking the knee” on the final day of the Premier League. The broadcasters raised the volume of their studio folk and dulled the noise from the stadium to hide the spirit of indifference. 

Over the course of the last year, expletives have been followed by an apology – the lack of crowd noise has exposed just how much bad language there is in football. Non-league regulars have been exposed to it for decades.

Since March 2020, the football world has been in a sanitised bubble. How long before TV starts to issue viewer warnings before the game, cautioning that the event may contain language and sentiments from a different era?

The huge issue with jeering a gesture that represents the fight against racism is that whatever your reason for finding it disagreeable, you will be bracketed with racists. There’s no room at a football match for deep and meaningful discussion over principles, emotions and viewpoints – you will look like a racist to those around you. To a certain degree, the same applied to the way the public embraced Tom Moore, anything remotely resembling a question was shouted down and greeted with venomous reactions from the social media cognoscenti. In short, you were not allowed to disagree with the narrative.

Stand up if… 

Football fans are so engrossed in a game, so over-invested, that abusing opposition players defines their passion for their own club. Try and applause an opposition goal and see what happens.

Some fans base their entire ideology on hatred for their close rivals – in the Observer’s review of the 2020-21 season, there were a number of writers whose happiest moment was effectively schadenfreude directed towards the opposition they despise. Blind loyalty is a feature of being a loyal blue, red, gooner, Spur or hammer for many fans. It doesn’t always pay to have a constrasting view, or to think about what’s being presented before you. But only by questioning what you’re paying for will those selling the product pay 100% attention to the customer experience. 

Football is not a religion, no matter how many people try and tell you it is. It is certainly an escape valve and that’s why fans become vocal, foul-mouthed, abusive and tribal. No matter how sanitised the game becomes, how frightened people are to voice an opinion in society for fear of offending, being ostracised or marginalised, the reactionary behaviour that football inspires will always prevail. There are boundaries, and rightly so, but you cannot pretend it is not part of the game. No amount of fluffy mascots and community-orientated projects will ever entirely change that, it only tips the see-saw in the opposite direction to ensure clubs can portray a more genteel image to the broader public. Football is not X Factor, Eurovision or Strictly Come Dancing, even if it has become prime time TV.

All human life

It is possible pent-up emotions and frustration may lead to a period of over-exhuberance among fans, which will pass. Ironically, my last match before lockdown was at Salford City and there was a bit of an outbreak of old fashioned crowd trouble as a group of Bradford City fans infiltrated the Salford end. Although I don’t like to see it, the incident did make me smile a little. It wasn’t a big deal, but significant enough for a policeman to ask me to stop taking photos!

We saw when fans protested about the European Super League just how much they wanted to let their feelings known, there’s no telling how vocal or vicious they would have been if stadiums were full of owner-fatigued fans with the message, “support the team, not the regime”. 

There’s also been an occasion where the presence of a crowd has proved “too much” for a referee. We may have forgotten what the matchday used to include – certainly, some clubs who have enjoyed the influence of their home crowd have certainly not been as formidable in empty arenas.

We’re all looking forward to returning to stadiums to witness the good, the bad and the ugly, the undesirable and the delightful. It’s not a perfect environment, but quite frankly, is there any other experience to match it in the largely homogenous societies in which we live? All human life can be found in a football ground – are the media and local communities all over the nation ready for its return? 

@GameofthePeople

Photo: ALAMY

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