Fascism and Football Collide at Swindon
Returning to these pages for the first time since reviewing Hunting Grounds back in April 2010, NUJ member Niall Slater ponders over the recent controversy at Swindon following the arrival of new manager Paolo Di Canio.
Any visitor to the County Ground on a Saturday afternoon is virtually guaranteed to hear fans in the Town End chant their Oxford-baiting song ending in the following couplet: “Keep the red flag flying high/Cause Swindon Town will never die”. Only an incredibly naïve attendee would think this only refers to the team’s home shirt. After all, Swindon represents a heritage rooted in the industrial working-class that is somewhat at odds with the rest of predominately rural county of Wiltshire, thanks to the town’s former status as the home of Brunel’s Great Western Railway. A visit to the town’s STEAM museum, clearly displays the social history of the railway’s impact locally, as well as the collectivist trade-unionism that the industry forged on broader community.
And despite the railway works ceasing production in the late 80s, the town remains an industrial hub, the home of the large Honda and Mini car factories, as well as many business headquarters. And fans of the football club maintain a strong hold on these working class roots, particular in order to snipe at the perceived posher neighbours up the A420.
Swindon Town FC’s link to this heritage has been displayed more directly than a terrace chant half inching the tune of the Red Flag – the club received an annual sponsorship from the GMB, the UK’s third largest union to sponsor players and to use the club’s conference facilities. But that was until a fortnight ago, when Paolo Di Canio was appointed as the club’s newest manager which resulted in the withdrawal of the sponsorship from the outraged local branch.
You needn’t look too far to find out why. Di Canio has made no secret of his right-wing political beliefs, openly describing himself as a fascist, indulging in a Nazi-style straight arm salute to fans whilst at Lazio, and being open in his admiration for Benito Mussolini in his autobiography (currently available for the princely sum of 1p from Amazon Marketplace for any Robins who want to read up the new boss – his description of ex-Town boss Danny Wilson as a “frustrated nobody” may well endear him to a few fans).
The local GMB might be open to accusations of manipulating the appointment for their own publicity, and it’s also difficult to imagine their £4,000-a-year sponsorship made a massive difference to the club finances (especially when the £1.8million transfer fee received for Charlie Austin does not appear to have been enough to help strengthen the squad), but the decision does raise the question of how the owners of a club which trades off a proud working-class tradition and promotes community inclusion and cohesion square their decision to endorse a man with such questionable leanings. The appointment has certainly led to disagreement between supporters online, but we’ve yet to hear the classic ‘It’s a business decision’ from the club’s owners and rightly so, this is an area that goes beyond business. After all, Swindon is a club which lost three of its players – Alan Fowler, William Imrie and Dennis Olney – during the fight against fascism in the Second World War, and who still play at a ground which was used as British prisoner of war camp during this period.
Also concerning for Town fans is the fact that Di Canio has never managed anyone and is launching his career in the guts and grind of fourth-tier English football. It’s not a massive leap to ask whether Di Canio’s appointment is a publicity stunt by the bosses worried that relegation to League 2 will be accompanied by a fall in match day attendances.
Perhaps the big issue is that Swindon fans actually know what Di Canio’s political beliefs are and that, as a former professional footballer, he has any at all. Recent Twitter scandals have led Joe Public to acquire an unflattering view of the private lives of the players representing their clubs, but a footballer acknowledging far-right political tendencies is somewhat uncharted territory. But how many fans could confidently say that they know whether their team’s boss is a card carrying SWP member or whether he’s always felt Maggie Thatcher was the best PM the country ever had? Perhaps none of this matters, and it’s unlikely that Town fans will maintain much socialist ire if Di Canio leads their club to the league title, whilst playing beautiful football (and beating Oxford United on the way).
Where most managers either don’t ‘do’ politics or at least would rather fans believed they’re too bust to read the front pages of the papers, with Di Canio that particular genie is already out of the bottle. All this writer can hope is that he’ll show Swindon’s broad and varied fan base the same respect the club have shown him by giving him his first break in management, ensuring that he keeps his politics out of his post-match comments.