In the 1980s, the authorities and the police declared war on the spectre of football hooliganism and sought to tame the behaviour of crowds. Now, the authorities and police want to control not only what supporters do but also what they are allowed to say, sing or even think, and have declared war on ‘offensive’ chanting. There might be far fewer arrests for violence at matches today, but supporters are being nicked for alleged Thought Crimes – see the infamous arrest of Spurs supporters for calling themselves the ‘Yid Army’, or the three Gillingham fans arrested on suspicion of a ‘racially aggravated public-order offence’ after reportedly calling Rotherham manager Steve Evans a ‘fat Scottish wanker’.
Until Hillsborough, the Tory government wanted to introduce ID cards specifically for football fans, to make it easier to identify, arrest and ban those accused of hooliganism. Now, the Lib-Con coalition wants to introduce something called IPNAs that would make it possible to punish anybody accused of causing ‘nuisance or annoyance’ to somebody somewhere; it might be hard to think of a football chant, song or wind-up that would not meet such a limbo-low standard of criminality.
In the 1980s, police treated away fans in particular like prisoners of war, marching them to the stadium and then herding them into packed metal cages to ‘enjoy’ the match. These days the police like to get their retaliation in early, often using Section 27 of New Labour’s Violent Crime Reduction Act to bar away supporters from entering not just a pub or street, but an entire town or city on a match day. Police also file lengthy reports on the behaviour of away fans at every game, including whether they indulge in ‘inappropriate chanting’ (the horror, the horror). One recently leaked example, about Manchester United fans’ day out in Norwich, was entitled ‘Information for Inclusion in the Assessment of Football-Related Violence and Disorder and Emerging Trends Document’ (I am not making this up). It denounced examples of ‘unacceptable, anti-social [and] dangerous’ behaviour inside the Carrow Road ground, including ‘complimentary condiments being thrown around and sauce bottles being squirted on to the floor’. Something surely must be done, or they’ll be smoking on the back of the school bus next…
Back then, the ‘match-day experience’ (not an expression you heard in the 1980s, when the sort of people who use such management speak did not go to football) was very different. Most fans, especially visiting-team supporters, watched from cramped and crumbling terraces where if you got a ‘warm feeling’ it probably meant the bloke behind was peeing on your leg. The locked cages made any big match a potential Hillsborough; the then Chelsea chairman wanted to supplement these security measures by erecting an electrified cattle fence around the pitch at Stamford Bridge. Now, fans watch in the safety and security of sanitised all-seater stadiums, brought in after Hillsborough, where the police and ‘response teams’ of security officials seek to micro-manage their behaviour by dictating not only what they can do or drink, but what banners they can bring into the ground, what songs they can sing and what language they are allowed to use. Effectively, fans today are told to sit down and behave themselves. As spiked’s sports columnist, Duleep Allirajah, has pointed out, fans are now treated less as violent thugs than as naughty children. Why the atmosphere at matches should now be so dull and subdued compared to the old days remains a mystery…
In the 1980s, the Football Association was seen as a bumbling collective of blazers who could not organise a kickabout in a park. Now, by contrast, the FA is seen as a bumbling collective of suits who could not organise a World Cup in a multi-million pound national stadium. The FA’s self-image has also changed in the past 25 years. Back then, officials would often claim that dealing with the behaviour of crowds was society’s problem, not football’s. Now, the FA boldly asserts, in declaring war on Spurs fans’ use of the ‘Y word’, that its role is not merely to ‘enforce the Laws of the Game’, but also to ‘send out clear messages about what is and is not acceptable language’ among supporters. (As clear messages go, the Yid Army’s chorus of ‘We’ll sing what we like’ surely takes some beating.)
Back then, too, working-class football supporters were frequently attacked by the right-wing press and politicians. The Sun’s notorious April 1989 front page, headlined ‘The Truth’, which falsely accused Liverpool fans of causing the disaster at Hillsborough, was only the most extreme example. In 1985 the respectable Sunday Times had condemned football as a ‘slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people, who deter decent folk from turning up’. In the pre-Hillsborough debate over introducing ID cards for football supporters, one Tory member of the house of lords demanded football ID cards to deal with ‘the yob class’ of teenagers who went to matches – that is, people like those who were to die that day – while another lord and admiral said football should not be the national sport as it was ‘a slum game played by louts in front of hooligans’.
How times have changed. These days, of course, many of those whom Tories might consider ‘decent folk’ do go to watch football in the prawn-sandwich section of all-seater stadiums. But some of them still don’t like what they see off the pitch, among the more proletarian supporters. Instead of Tory lords denouncing working-class fans as hooligans and yobs, we have liberal elitists denouncing them as homophobes and racists; one liberal newspaper columnist rails against the ‘knuckle-dragging cretins’ she is forced to listen to at the footie, while, in the run-up to the twenty-fifth anniversary of Hillsborough, a Channel 4 documentary demanded that the police do more to crack down on ‘offensive’ fans.
We can all agree that another Hillsborough must and will not happen. How far attitudes towards working-class football fans have changed for the better is a different question altogether – and one that the new inquests into the 96 deaths will not answer.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His book, There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever, is published by Societas. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his website here.
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