In defence of Terrace Tourette Syndrome

Forget clamping down on footie fans’ abusive chanting: we should admire the lyrical skill of cramming so much filth into such short verses.

Do footballers have a right to be protected against abusive fans? Sol Campbell thinks so. In fact he wants the Football Association and the UK government to take action against fans who verbally abuse players.

‘If this happened on the streets, you’d be arrested’, the Portsmouth and England defender told listeners to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. ‘This is a human rights situation.’ A human rights situation? What a load of cobblers. More like a whining, oversensitive tart situation, if you ask me. I know it’s a cliché but terrace abuse really is as much a part of the game as meat pies and half-time Bovril. If professional footballers can’t take the verbals then they’re in the wrong trade.

The anti-abuse crusade, however, has been gathering momentum in recent weeks. First, Joey Barton branded Newcastle fans as ‘vicious’ for abusing manager Sam Allardyce and his underperforming stars. Then Harry Redknapp hit out at Aston Villa fans for hurling obscenities at the Portsmouth dug-out. ‘You’ve got people saying stuff behind you with little kids shouting filth’, he complained. ‘I didn’t bring my kids up to talk like that.’ Manchester United, too, have been compiling a dossier on the abuse meted out by Arsenal fans to Sir Alex Ferguson when United visited the Emirates in November 2007.

There is a perception that fans are more abusive today than in the past. Sol Campbell thinks it is ‘out of hand now’. ‘It didn’t happen when I went with my dad to watch Arsenal play every Saturday’, said Harry Redknapp. ‘There was none of this sort of nonsense going on.’ But you only have to read Eamon Dunphy’s book Only a Game to see that Redknapp’s rose-tinted memory of the past is questionable. ‘The supporters really gave us some stick. Really vicious’, wrote Dunphy after a Millwall home defeat. ‘I was walking off the pitch when I caught the eye of this big fat guy who stands beside the tunnel… and he gave me the old wanking sign. Contempt. But there was not just contempt in his face, there was aggression also.’ (1) These could have been the words of Joey Barton but they were penned over 30 years ago in Dunphy’s diarised account of the 1973-4 season. The fact is that fans have not become more foul-mouthed. Rather today’s players are much more thin-skinned. To put it bluntly, they’ve gone soft.

Sol Campbell is certainly no stranger to verbal abuse. Ever since he walked out on Spurs to join despised north London rivals Arsenal in 2001 on a free transfer he has been a target for the White Hart Lane boo boys. Fans have branded Campbell a ‘Judas’ and questioned his sexuality for good measure. When the player took an unscheduled break from Arsenal for stress-related reasons, Spurs supporters marked the occasion with a particularly offensive ditty. It went: ‘Sol, Sol wherever you may be; you’re on the brink of insanity. And we don’t give a fuck if you’re hanging from a tree; you’re a Judas cunt with HIV.’ Deeply unpleasant, yes, but one can’t help but admire the lyrical skill to cram so much filth into such a short verse.

Campbell might be right to point out that verbal abuse wouldn’t be tolerated outside a football stadium. However, I think there is a distinction between a football match and other social arenas. A football stadium is one place where the normal social conventions are temporarily suspended. Not all conventions, of course. You couldn’t get away with snogging your granny on the terraces (except in rural areas). But singing offensive songs and swearing to your heart’s content has always been permissible at football. I wouldn’t dream of ranting and raving like a frothing madman at home, on the bus, at work or when visiting the in-laws. But a bit of Terrace Tourette Syndrome seems perfectly fitting, even obligatory, on a Saturday afternoon.

Or at least it used to. In recent years, football’s special status has been eroded by the imposition of the ‘family friendly’ sit-down-shut-up culture. The offensive chants haven’t gone away - it’s pretty difficult trying to stop tens of thousands of supporters singing lewd songs. But stewards cautioning or ejecting individual spectators for using foul and abusive language or persistent standing has become depressingly commonplace. Little wonder that the atmosphere inside many football stadiums is eerily hushed. This week Sir Alex Ferguson complained that Old Trafford had been like a ‘funeral’ during his team’s 1-0 win over Birmingham City.

Some blame all-seater stadiums. Others think it’s the wrong type of fans. Corporate fans munching their prawn sandwiches or ‘day trippers’ (ie, nouveau fans probably from Surrey) are the usual suspects. However, Colin Hendrie from the Independent Manchester United Association believes that crowd policing is to blame. ‘It’s almost like a police state in a football ground now’, he told The Times. ‘If you do stand up, people will take your arm, put it behind the back of your neck and throw you out of the ground. Under those circumstances, what atmosphere does he [Ferguson] want?’ (2)

Terrace abuse can be creative and extremely witty. It can also be crass, hurtful and vitriolic. It’s difficult to disagree with Norwich boss Glenn Roeder that fans who shout ‘tumour boy, why are you still alive?’ at him are ‘saddoes’ and ‘low lifes’. However, I still wouldn’t prohibit even the sickest of insults. Nor would I draw a distinction, as Sol Campbell does, between ‘light banter’ and verbal abuse.

Why? Because once you start enforcing the commandment ‘Thou shalt not offend’, it is very difficult to know where to draw the line. Racist abuse is no longer tolerated – more thanks to shifting social attitudes than tougher football legislation. But should Spurs fans be stopped from calling Sol Campbell a ‘Judas cunt’ or, as has been proposed, from calling themselves ‘yids’? And what about commonplace terrace chants about a player’s sexuality, the size of his girth, or even the colour of his hair? Reading’s Dave Kitson, for example, has argued that mocking ginger-haired players is akin to racism. One man’s light banter is another’s verbal abuse.

The thing is you simply cannot surgically excise verbal abuse from the terraces without seriously damaging the matchday atmosphere, too. As Times writer Matthew Syed acknowledges: ‘Football without its furious, chaotic and occasionally offensive tribalism would not be football at all.’ (3) And the secret to a passionate, pulsating atmosphere is that it isn’t orchestrated or restricted in any way. It is an oasis of free expression and we circumscribe it at our peril.

If you want every football stadium in the land to become as funereal and anaesthetised as Old Trafford often is, then clamping down on terrace abuse is the right way to go about it.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

Read on:

spiked issue: Sport

(1) Eamon Dunphy, Only a Game: The diary of a professional footballer, Amazon UK

(2) Silent majority claim Old Trafford has been ‘turned into police state’, The Times (London), 3 January 2008

(3) Players should get house in order before shouting the odds at fans, The Times (Lomdon), 29 December 2007

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