This article appeared in the Sunday Herald
What will it be like, watching football, say ten years from now? The Great and the Good like that sort of question, probably because they get to sound like Barack Obama without having to grapple with their own impotence, contradictions or doubts. A seat for everyone and everyone in his (or her) seat? Well, they’ve got that one nailed down already. Family-friendly atmospheres? Sure, we all like families. No sectarianism, racism or homophobia? Even better.
But wait. It’s important to get this straight, because it is surely obvious to all but fools that once social ills are eliminated from sport they’ll soon up and evaporate from the rest of life too. How are we to achieve this eradication of nastiness? The answer, of course, is via CCTV, dossiers of offensive chants and lip-synch technology; by herding, stifling, monitoring and ultimately spying on supporters. They tend to be quite big on civil liberties, the Great and the Good, but not when it comes to people attending football matches. And going on burgeoning evidence, fans around the UK are frequently beheld with a presumption of guilt.
For the most part they are suffered like naughty children, enjoined to turn up, sit down and shut up. One supposes that is progress from the days when they were caged in behind fences like animals, but just as in the aftermath of the G20 protests and the Damian Green affair people are wondering what exactly the police are for, it’s worth noting that patrons of what is one of the country’s biggest leisure industries still seem to have fewer rights than animals.
Last year, Cliff Auger took his two teenage sons to Stamford Bridge to watch their team, Chelsea, beat QPR in the FA Cup. When, after the game and walking away from the ground, 16-year-old James was bitten by a police dog, Cliff instinctively jumped in and kicked it, only to be set on by officers wearing riot gear, who broke several of his ribs and landed him in hospital for the next four days. He was then found guilty of causing unnecessary suffering to a protected animal and fined £500.
“There was a simple presumption on the part of the police that he was a trouble-maker because he was a football fan,” says Michael Brunskill of the Football Supporters’ Federation, a body which represents 142,000 registered members in England and Wales. “There was no acknowledgement that a father protecting his son is a natural instinct.”
Policing and stewarding in and around football grounds is one of the FSF’s main areas of concern and they receive complaints from fans about mistreatment every week. Stewards, says Michael, are often little different to bouncers: “An example of that is at Newcastle, who decided they would have a singing area but, of course, there was to be no standing. If you sing in church, you stand, it’s natural, but these guys go in and effectively man-handle people, which they’ve no more legal right to do than you or I.”
The FSF are also worried by the new ploy of locking supporters in pubs near stadia so that they miss the game. Section 27 of the Violence Crimes Reduction Act 2006 allows police to restrict the movements of individuals in this way but the law has been misapplied. In November a group of around 80 Stoke City fans were kept in a pub in Manchester for two hours, even though, according to the publican, their behaviour was exemplary.
I haven’t heard of the tactic being used in Scotland, but Steve Sutherland of Aberdeen’s Red Ultras supporters’ group, which was set up almost a decade ago with the aim of putting some colour and passion back into Scottish football, recognises the intent behind it. “We’ve had guys arrested for as little as handing out bags of confetti, or for standing up, or for not moving where they’re told. It’s the same for other groups like ourselves around the country. It’s amazing that something so innocent as wanting to support your team can become so complicated.
“The issue of standing is a bit of a sticking point. When Elton John played a concert at Pittodrie, the whole place was standing; but then there’s a football game in front of a half-empty stadium and all of a sudden it’s considered dangerous.”
Gone today are the swaying terraces of yesteryear, and with them much of the chorused banter and vitriol that formed part of the cultural experience of watching football. A generation has grown up for whom watching on television either at home or in the pub is the authentic ticket, and if you do go to the game, at whichever identikit stadium your club or their opponents were forced to erect to keep the bureaucrats happy, it’ll be made quite clear that if ever football was the people’s game it is no longer. Having forked out handsomely to watch men who care more about wresting ever-greater sums of money from the club’s chairman than they do about its traditions, you won’t know much about what your fellow fans are shouting or singing anyway because your ears will still be hurting from the Robbie Williams song they played when the teams ran out.
It’s not this uniformly drab in other parts of Europe, mind. When Spurs travelled to Wisla Krakow in the Uefa Cup recently, the Polish crowd mocked the atmosphere at White Hart Lane the week before by sitting behind their newspapers for the first 15 minutes of the game. And in Germany most grounds have designated safe standing areas where fans can jump around, sing and do all the other stuff that would have the authorities here spitting feathers and clutching for the health and safety manual. Not even Lord Taylor, let’s remember – in his report in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster – was able to argue that standing at football matches is inherently unsafe.
Football clubs and their governing associations in the UK have instead assisted in the stifling of passion and spontaneity at grounds. They have done so to placate sponsors and politicians and, perhaps, because like everyone else they must be seen to reinforce political correctness. “We’re not saying we want a return to the bad old days and there should be no place for racism or homophobia in football, but it’s arguably naive to think that football supporters can or should be made to behave like boy scouts,” says Brunskill. “How far do you go? Shouldn’t we have a debate, for example, before people who’ve verbally abused this or that player are named and shamed on Crimewatch?”
In Glasgow it is well known that chorused invective can be as an overture to real violence, but in most cases it is understood that going to the football involves a partial suspension of the rules of everyday life. Spurs fans, case in point, do not go about calling Arsenal supporters “HIV c***s” at work, do they? Tribalism, rivalries and petty antagonisms are all realities on which the game thrives. If they’re being honest the Old Firm clubs know this full well. And where there is no real social basis for a vicious footballing rivalry, one evolves anyway – how else do you explain Kilmarnock versus Ayr United?
I remember going as a boy to the football with my dad and hearing, for the first time, all manner of swearing and vitriolic abuse. It didn’t put me off going back, but nor did it set me on the path of recidivism. It told me, I think, that football could be a bit rough around the edges, that here was a man’s game. Is that really so bad?