‘Stick your minute’s silence up your arse’

Football's vibrant terrace culture once thrived on trading insults; now it languishes under post-Diana codes of emotional conduct.

How should we honour football’s dead – a minute’s silence or a minute’s applause? This week a bizarre row broke over the right way to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Munich air crash, in which 23 people died, including several highly promising young Manchester United players - ‘the Busby Babes’. The question no one is asking, however, is whether football fans should be required to observe these public mourning rituals at all. (In case you can’t be bothered to scroll down, the answer is no).

United are planning a minute’s silence for the derby game against local rivals Manchester City on 10 February, but some City fans have asked for a minute’s applause instead. (A cynic might say that the atmosphere at Old Trafford is pretty funereal during most Premiership games so why bother…but let’s not go there). So why do City fans want to applaud the victims of Munich? This isn’t a theological debate about the correct method of devotional observance. Rather, it’s because of the fear that a minority of City supporters might disrupt the minute’s silence. ‘We are concerned… that it will only take one of those idiots to decide to shout something stupid and then the whole situation has been spoilt forever’, explained Kevin Parker from the City supporter’s club. ‘We are calling for applause just in case. We can’t be wrong for doing that, surely.’

The club, however, is refusing to alter its plans. ‘It’s a solemn event’, United spokesman Phil Townsend told BBC Radio Five Live. ‘Our view is that the minute’s silence is a more appropriate way of recognising a disaster that killed 23 people. I don’t think we should change those plans because of the fear of a few idiots who might want to spoil it.’

For the benefit of the uninitiated, there is a long and irreverent tradition in the north-west for rival fans to refer to United as ‘Munichs’ and sing offensive songs about the disaster. ‘Who’s that dying on the runway? Who’s that dying in the snow?’ they sing. ‘It’s Matt Busby and his boys and they’re making all the noise, cos they can’t get the aeroplane to go.’ There are several other variations on this theme. It’s all pretty tasteless stuff but then these sort of offensive chants can be found at the heart of most football rivalries. The point is to mock that which is most sacred to your rival. It’s like sledging in cricket. If you’re going to wind someone up then there’s no inoffensive way to do it. You tell your opponent how much you enjoyed shagging his wife.

Munich chants are a product of the old rough-house terrace culture when fans were a bit more thick-skinned. They could take abuse on the chin without reporting it to the stewards or phoning Alan Green’s 6-0-6 to complain. But the fine old terrace tradition of trading insults is increasingly coming into conflict with our contemporary ‘offend nobody’ etiquette. And, to make matters worse, if you also contravene the post-Diana codes of emotionally correct conduct then you’re in deep shit. Disrupting a minute’s silence, as a handful of Leeds and Liverpool fans did during the tributes for George Best, is regarded as the lowest of the low - instant social pariah status.

I have no problem with football clubs occasionally commemorating the death of a player or a club official. The problem is that fans are asked to observe a minute’s silence at the drop of a hat these days. Supporters of all clubs, for example, were asked to commemorate the passing of George Best and Alan Ball. There have been calls for the Football Association to mark the anniversary of the Munich disaster by staging a minute’s silence before England’s friendly against Switzerland next month. But the regimented displays of public mourning don’t just stop at dead footballers. In recent years, football fans have been asked to observe minutes of silence to commemorate the 9/11 dead, the murdered Soham schoolgirls, teenage shooting victim Rhys Jones, Pope John Paul II, Iraq hostage Ken Bigley, the victims of the Asian tsunami and Radio 1 DJ John Peel.

Phil Townsend claims that City fans are just as entitled to a piece of the grief action as their local rivals. ‘It was a crash that affected the whole of Manchester’, said Townsend. ‘It is very much Manchester’s “Kennedy moment” - everyone of that generation knew where they were when they heard the terrible news.’ Maybe so, but that was 50 years ago. Why should football fans who weren’t even born then or who support rival clubs be dragooned into these contrived displays of conspicuous mourning? Sure, the premature loss of the Busby Babes was tragic but what’s it got to do with me?

The exponential growth of the silent tributes is, like other public grief rituals such as commemorative ribbons, makeshift shrines and books of condolence, symptomatic of a society suffering from a loss of meaning and moral certainty. We’re no longer sure what we believe in. We can’t agree on right and wrong. But we can at least stand for a minute’s silence - or applause depending on your preference - to honour a dead celebrity.

If football was a laboratory for testing new crowd control techniques in the 1980s, it’s now an arena for trialling new forms of moral regulation. Well, I for one don’t want to be a lab rat for the new etiquette of emotionalism. I certainly don’t want to be told what I should feel or how I should mourn. Grief should be a private matter not a public obligation. Or, as we say on the terraces, you can stick your minute’s silence up your arse.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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