The worst insult in football: ‘plastic’

Abusing the other team’s fans for being fake is fun. But the demand for football authenticity is a mug’s game.

What’s the worst insult you can hurl at opposition football fans? We supporters have heard them all: dirty northern bastards, sheep-shaggers, rent boys, pikeys, nonces, inbreds. We’re used to trading the cruellest taunts. And, for the most part, we are pretty immune to this playground name-calling. But there’s one jibe that would make all of us bristle and that’s being called a ‘plastic fan’. That cuts to the quick. Most fans would rather be placed on the Sex Offenders’ register than branded a plastic.

What is a plastic fan? A plastic fan is essentially a fake fan. It’s a curious phenomenon. Plastics are everywhere and nowhere. While you’ll find plenty of fans berating their opponents as ‘plastic’, you’ll never actually meet a self-confessed plastic. The best known archetype is the Roger Nouveau character in The Fast Show. He’s a middle-class supporter whose ignorance of the customs of fandom betrays his recent conversion to football. A plastic fan is one whose allegiance to a team is not determined by geography or family ties. He or she is a glory hunter. In one sketch, Roger Nouveau admits that he stopped supporting Manchester United ‘because they weren’t doing so well’ and switched allegiance to Arsenal.

Another classic symptom of plastic-fan infestation is the amount of noise generated in a stadium. Or rather the lack of it. Roy Keane was famously scathing about the new breed of largely muted interlopers at Old Trafford. ‘Away from home, our fans are fantastic, I’d call them the hardcore fans’, said Keane. ‘But at home, they have a few drinks and probably the prawn sandwiches, and they don’t realise what’s going on out on the pitch.’ Plastic fans aren’t ‘local’. A longstanding jibe aimed at Manchester United is that their supporters are glory-hunting ‘plastics’ who mainly live in Surrey. ‘We support our local team’, sing opposition supporters to wind up United. However, if you browse the United message boards, you’ll find plenty of fans denouncing some of their fellow reds as ‘day trippers’ and ‘Johnny Come Latelys’.

Even if supporters do make a noise, they have to comply with unwritten terrace conventions. Brighton handed out 28,000 paper clappers to its fans for the second leg of the Championship play-off semi-final against Crystal Palace. Invariably, Palace fans mercilessly taunted their south-coast rivals. ‘We’re Crystal Palace, we clap with our hands’, they chanted mockingly. The problem is that, while paper clappers generate noise, it’s not the right type of noise. Clappers are not regarded as the ‘traditional’ means by which football fans generate atmosphere. The correct, non-plastic way is by singing and clapping (with hands).

As at Manchester United, there are internecine tensions within the Brighton camp. Albion manager Gus Poyet was furious about the decision to dish out clappers. ‘Would someone like to admit it was their idea to hand out stupid pieces of noise-making paper?’ said Poyet in a leaked email to club employees. ‘I am not for one minute blaming the result on this, but it added only negative vibes to the proceedings.’ Visit an Albion message board, such as North Stand Chat, and you’ll find plenty of Brighton fans complaining about the plastics fans who have swelled their ranks in recent years. Inevitably, you won’t encounter a genuine plastic fan – if that’s not a contradiction in terms - outing themselves on the message boards. Laptop ultras are all 100 per cent kosher.

While Palace fans might laugh at Brighton’s ‘plastics’, they too face similar accusations. TalkSPORT presenter Adrian Durham recently branded Palace ‘cringeworthy’ for playing goal celebration music. Millwall fans ridicule the Palace ‘ultras’ for using a drum to orchestrate chanting. Even though drums, horns and even PA systems are commonplace on the continent, this is not considered the traditional British way. That’s the problem with playing this prolier-than-thou game of oneupmanship. Nobody is perfect. There’s always someone more authentic than you.

When you apply some historic perspective, it’s clear what we regard as ‘authentic’ traditions are actually quite historically specific. Modern fandom, with its tribal partisanship and terrace chanting, first emerged in the late Fifties and early Sixties. Before the Munich air crash in 1958, for example, it was common for Mancunians to watch United one week and City the next. Dual allegiances would be considered sacrilege today. Football fandom as we know it today was effectively a branch of youth culture, adapting pop songs and developing its own ‘terrace casual’ dress codes. I would argue that it was also a nascent form of modern identity politics. In the early 1960s, going to football evolved from being a leisure activity - something we did – into an identity - something that defined who we are.

I’ve made no secret of my hatred of certain modern abominations such as jester’s hats, novelty Afro wigs and giant foam hands. Like Adrian Durham, I too despise goal celebration music. It’s not because these things are inauthentic or plastic. Goal celebration music has been around so long many younger fans will regard it as the norm. What I don’t like about piped music is that it is manufactured atmosphere. I prefer the creativity and wit of fans making their own atmosphere - singing what they want, when they want. Piped music destroys this spontaneous fan culture. It reduces us to a stage army, clapping and chanting on cue.

Self-generated atmosphere is my preference. I’m a bit old school that way. But that doesn’t mean that anyone who dances to goal celebration music should be treated as a social pariah. Supporting a football team is not an ethical act. There is no correct way of behaving at football. By all means let’s have a debate about whether or not our clubs should play piped music. But the inverted snobbery over plastic fans should be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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