The Argument: Time to Stop Assuming Football Fans are all Thugs
A few days ago, the Football Supporters’ Federation who, along with doing great campaigning work on issues like safe standing and ticket prices, have a dedicated Case Worker, who is able to refer fans who get into trouble with the law for legal advice, tweeted thanks to a legal firm “for successfully representing two fans in civil claim against police for false imprisonment & assault. Compensation paid.”
It was the latest in a long line of similar cases. Sometimes supporters have contravened the rules, on other occasions the problem has been caused by over-zealous stewarding. Often they are situations that should be sorted out without resorting to the courts. A brief review of how football supporters are treated by this country’s legal system, and their own clubs, reveals a catalogue of unfairness that wouldn’t be tolerated in any other context. I doubt if the above-mentioned case, if it were reported elsewhere, caused a ripple of consternation even though “false imprisonment and assault” by the police is a pretty shocking thing to happen in a democratic society. My argument here is not about the unfairness in itself however. That has been dealt with recently, in an excellent piece in the New Statesman by Martin Cloake and Darren White. Of course, law-abiding supporters should not have to tolerate “Bubbles,” alcohol bans, and generally being treated like someone suspected of “PreCrime” in a downmarket version of Minority Report. My argument is with the prejudice behind this treatment, and that is purely and simply related to social class, or perceptions of it.
Despite considerable changes in the culture of football since the era of the Boot Boys in the 1970s and 80s, there is still a general perception that football supporters are, in the main, working-class. Definitions of class are problematic in themselves, of course, with lots of people – like me – self-identifying as working-class, despite frequently being caught with sun-blushed tomatoes and a rather piquant Chablis with floral-infused notes in their supermarket trolley. In fact, the dispossessed in the twenty-first century are often workless, so “working” is probably a misleading description too. Nevertheless, the rise of the zero-hours, minimum wage economy means that there are many hard-up working people who like and want to watch live football. Whether they can afford to, with ticket prices and travel costs constantly rising, is another matter. They may have been priced out, and replaced by the better off, but that doesn’t stop either the media or our legislators from continuing to make outdated assumptions about football crowds and how they behave.
It isn’t just in the context of football, of course. Working-class people are subjected to all kinds of hostility and unfair stereotyping, particularly by the media, who appear to have made a sport of demonizing them in TV programmes like Benefits Street. Despite the fact that attendance at football matches has become more middle class – the jokes about people filming games on iPads at the Emirates and the laser-printed protest signs at Stamford Bridge come to mind – an outmoded view of the football fan as aggressive proletarian prevails. For example, in February 2015, Martin Daubney wrote a seriously confused article for The Telegraph supposedly “defending” white, male working-class football fans from the egregious attentions of some scary-sounding types he called feminists and Guardianistas. It was written after the incident in Paris when a group of Chelsea fans racially abused a Parisian, a situation so tangled up in ironies I don’t know where to start unravelling. Among the abusers were a former policeman and “human rights lawyer,” and a UKIP fan, described by the Daily Mail as “[Josh] Parsons, who attended £30,000 a year Millfield private school, … suspended from his job at the Business and Commercial Finance Club.” This incident, along with witnessing a fight among Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa fans led Daubney to conclude that football fandom these days is all about “white, pissed-up working-class football scum trying to kill each other on a Saturday night.” Yet a very small amount of research into the backgrounds of those Chelsea fans completely belies his class assumptions. Articles like Daubney’s – predictably accompanied by a risible stock image from The Football Factory – do little except reinforce prejudices against football supporters and exacerbate the moral panic that is apparently caused by the sight of groups of young(ish) working-class men walking through urban areas.
I’m not defending anyone who is violent or abusive, whatever their background, and I support the police in taking measures against those who are, but my point is that the fear of the football fan is based on outdated and mistaken perceptions of what makes up a football crowd and how they behave. Like many people, I’ve experienced the violence that occasionally happens at football and know how terrifying it can be, but it seems that this kind of behaviour – so often used to justify the stringent restrictions placed on supporters – doesn’t apply to one sport alone.
In October 2015, a group of rugby union fans, after watching England being knocked out of the World Cup on TV in a Clapham pub, “scrummed” and damaged a car while the driver, a 21-year-old woman, was sitting inside it. She was described as being “petrified” by the experience, but the news coverage about the incident concentrated on the “jovial” atmosphere, and the intention of the rugby fans to “only have a bit of fun.” Earlier that year, in the Six Nations tournament, there was serious violence and anti-social behaviour inside and outside the stadium in Cardiff following a Wales versus England match. Local police dismissed the violence as being at “normal levels,” but if the images published in the Welsh press had been of football supporters there would have been national outrage.
Henley Regatta saw forty-five arrests in 2011 and, although the number has dropped in recent years, there are still a significant number of incidents annually, resulting in charges of criminal damage and “assault by beating.” Yet the supporters of competitive rowing have yet to be tainted with the same reputation as the mainly peaceful masses who watch football at Wembley Stadium. In 2015, Ladies Day at Royal Ascot saw six arrests, some for violence – and that was a good year. It’s an event where trouble happens on a regular basis. Eighty people were arrested at Ascot in 2009 and thirty-four in 2014. In 2013-4, the recorded arrest figures for my club, Ipswich Town, were four – for the whole season, not just for one week – and while it was the lowest figure for a Championship club that year, most others were not much worse. Yet there is no suggestion that race-goers should be constrained when travelling to race courses, or told where and when they can drink alcohol. Neither, as far as I know, are any academics writing dissertations about equestrian events and anti-social behaviour.
Then there’s cricket. Bizarrely, if you Google “cricket supporters arrests” you only retrieve crime statistics about football fans. I’ve seen far more anti-social behaviour at Test matches, ranging from the tedious misogyny of a group of Yorkshire supporters to innocent spectators being pelted with full cans of Red Stripe by a West Indies supporter with a delivery like an unfriendly Courtney Walsh. I have seen cricket fans so drunk that they have had to be carried IN to Trent Bridge for the start of play. At any football match they would be unceremoniously heading in the opposite direction accompanied by a hi vis guard of honour. And, yes, I bear a personal grudge towards cricket fans, because it hurts to be deliberately hit on the head by a gas-filled life-size inflatable replica of Martin Johnson at Edgbaston. It really does.
All these sports have one thing in common. They are attended by (mostly) middle-class people whose behaviour, however obnoxious, is put down to “joviality,” “high spirits” getting out of hand, or that catch-all for so much that is often rather nasty, “banter.” Had smashing up restaurants in Oxford been a sport, no doubt those famous Bullingdon Club members of the 1980s would have each been given a winner’s medal, rather than the spell in a young offender’s institution their council estate counterparts would have received.
It’s obvious that the fear and loathing of the football crowd emanates at least in part from long-standing class prejudices and assumptions about the nature of football crowds. That these assumptions are wrong – if they were ever right – does not stop them being repeated over and over again. Despite everything we now know about Hillsborough, how badly the Liverpool fans were treated and later maligned, how “hooliganism” was not a factor, attitudes to football fans have changed very little.
Most people would laugh if you told them that you are eleven times more likely to be arrested at Glastonbury than at a football match.