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.