Offside, 2 March
Terrace humour is falling victim to our mind-your-language culture.
Are football fans going soft?
One of the most enjoyable things about terrace culture is the ritual trading of abuse. Football chants are cruel, obscene, offensive, sometimes downright sick and often very funny. But there are worrying indications that fans can no longer take a bit of ribbing.
To a Martian, a football match must appear like some kind of bizarre Tourette’s Syndrome festival where grown men take delight in hurling puerile foul-mouthed insults at each other. What our non-footballing Martian cannot comprehend is that a football stadium is an exceptional arena in which conventional social etiquette is suspended for 90 minutes. Most of us have friends and work colleagues who support rival football teams but we wouldn’t dream of screaming ‘scummers’ or ‘sheep-shaggers’ at them outside the context of a football match.
However, when we step through the turnstiles, it’s war – minus the shooting of course and largely minus any fisticuffs too these days. Football fans are assumed to be adults who are robust enough to take the abuse on the chin. But times are changing and what used to be seen as normal terrace banter is increasingly being frowned upon. Obscene chanting is now a criminal offence and it is not unusual to see individual fans ejected by stewards for persistent swearing.
More alarmingly, fans themselves have started to internalise the new mind-your-language culture. In February 2004, Merseyside police received over 100 written complaints from Everton fans offended by Manchester United players’ provocative goal celebrations. Anyone who has listened to a football phone-in on the radio will be familiar with the endless procession of outraged imbeciles who ring in to complain about players inciting the crowd or offensive terrace chanting.
Last month Liverpool fans were queuing up on Alan Green’s 606 phone-in to condemn Gary Neville for his badge-kissing goal celebration. Last week accusing fingers were pointed at Liverpool for celebrating the horrific leg injury suffered by Manchester United’s Alan Smith with chants of ‘John Arne Riise, I wanna know how you broke his leg’. And now Greater Manchester police have launched an inquiry following complaints from two deaf TV viewers that they had lip-read Liverpool’s Steve Finnan making a racist remark towards United defender Patrick Evra.
We’ve reached a paradoxical cultural moment in which the old terrace culture co-exists increasingly uneasily with the new intolerant thin-skinned culture. Fans still trade abusive taunts and many thankfully can still take a bit of name-calling without crying to the authorities. But the ranks of the easily offended are swelling fast.
The response to my recent Offside column about Geordies perfectly illustrates this over-sensitive tendency to take offence as easily as Arjen Robben falls over (1). In the article I gently mocked Geordie self-delusions about Newcastle’s ‘massive club’ status and their self-pitying propensity to weep in public. When my column found its way onto a Newcastle United message board it provoked a predictable flood of complaints. Many fans assumed that I must be a Manchester United fan, which is a coded way of saying that I don’t understand anything about football. Others were somewhat more abusive – one wag suggested that a Geordie must have humped ‘my lass’.
The abuse I can take but what I can’t abide are the bleating complaints that merely confirm my suspicions that Geordies are big cry-babies. Some pathetic fans complained that I was guilty of anti-Geordie racism. In response to my jibe that public weeping in football was Newcastle’s only contribution to civilisation, one angry chap went to the trouble of providing a list of illustrious Geordies (though he didn’t exactly help his own case by including Sting, AC/DC’s Brian Johnson and Dire Straits on that roster). Another message board contributor proposed that spiked’s editor should be bombarded with letters demanding an apology. So, to put the record straight, I would just like to say that I do now regret saying that Geordies were self-deluded and self-pitying. I should have added that they can’t take a joke either.
It’s a common gripe that all-seater stadiums and gentrification have destroyed the atmosphere at football matches. By contrast, I’ve always maintained that the regulation of fan conduct has been far more damaging. However, it is now becoming increasingly evident that the problem runs deeper and that the tendency of fans to take offence too easily is contributing to this corrosive process.
It’s about time we stood up for the right to indulge in offensive terrace banter and by implication our ability to withstand insults. It’s not a right that Thomas Paine would have recognised but then football hadn’t been invented in his day.
The nearest thing we have to a contemporary Thomas Paine is Gary Neville. You think I’m joking? I’m serious. Gary Neville is one of the few voices of common sense in this debate. Not only is he defiantly unapologetic about his provocative Scouse-baiting goal celebration, he also refused to join in the condemnation of Liverpool fans for their Alan Smith chants. ‘I have no reaction to the Alan Smith taunts’, he told BBC Greater Manchester Radio. ‘These things are part of football and you have to accept them’.
Football fans are great at dishing out abuse. It’s just a pity that some fans don’t possess Gary Neville’s stoicism when they’re on the receiving end.
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