The perpetual war against football fans

Today’s assault on offensive chanting shows that fans are still seen as stupid, dangerous hooligans.

Duleep Allirajah

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One week after we discovered the scale of police cover-up over the Hillsborough tragedy, the focus of the debate has somehow shifted to offensive chanting. How did that happen?

Like many football fans, I never believed that Liverpool fans were responsible for the Hillsborough deaths. It was pretty obvious that the Sun’s infamous headlines about drunken fans and dead being robbed were a total fabrication. Back in 1990, the Taylor Report had concluded that the main cause of the disaster was a ‘failure of police control’. What we didn’t know was the scale of the cover-up. We didn’t know that 41 supporters could have been saved if they had received emergency medical treatment earlier. We didn’t know that 164 police statements had been doctored. The police were culpable for the tragedy and the Liverpool fans were exonerated. Yet, incredibly, football fans still find themselves in the dock – in this instance, for singing offensive songs.

The ink on the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s (HIP) report had scarcely time to dry before Matt Lawton, writing in the Daily Mail, launched a broadside against fans who sing tasteless chants about Hillsborough: ‘The Daily Mail has long called for an end to the vile chants that can be heard at our football grounds and only the most ignorant individual would ignore the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report and still consider it appropriate to taunt Liverpool supporters about something the prime minister refers to as one if the greatest peacetime tragedies of the last century.’ You what? Sorry, but where in the HIP report does it say that anyone died as a result of tasteless songs? Chants about Hillsborough or the Munich air crash are undoubtedly puerile and stupid, but a few unpleasant songs pale into insignificance when compared to the tragic deaths of 96 people.

Last Saturday, a small number of Manchester United fans chanted, ‘Always the victim, it’s never your fault’, during the league game against Wigan. United fans started singing this song after the racial-abuse incident involving Liverpool striker Luis Suarez and United left-back Patrice Evra. However, the chant was interpreted by some as a sly dig about Hillsborough. As Daily Mail columnist Martin Samuel put it: ‘Knowing there would be hell to pay for any overt mention of Hillsborough or its victims, a more discreet insult was hurled in the knowledge it would cause equal offence.’ Whether or not the chant was an ironic allusion to Hillsborough, it was immediately condemned by Sir Alex Ferguson and the Manchester United Supporters Trust.

It wasn’t long before the focus had broadened from chants about football tragedies to terrace abuse in general. Jim Holden, chief sports correspondent at the Sunday Express, declared that it was time to halt to the ‘virulent culture of hatred’ on the terraces: ‘Everyone who has gone to a match recently will have heard screams of filthy abuse at individual players and managers, some of it beyond outrageous in its cruelty and offence. It is despicable behaviour – and not to be blithely tolerated because football is a “tribal” game.’

The Hillsborough disaster was a by-product of the establishment’s contempt for football and its working-class constituency. The Sunday Times’ famous description of football as a ‘slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people’ perfectly summed up how the game was regarded by the authorities. As Financial Times journalist Simon Kuper put it: ‘The disaster of 1989 happened because British stadiums were decrepit, and British police were obsessed with hooligans. Liverpool’s visiting supporters at Hillsborough were treated as monsters to be controlled, herded through an underground tunnel into pens behind one goal.’ The police had no interest in the safety of spectators. Fans were regarded purely and simply as a crowd-control problem. It is this fear and loathing of the mob that caused the tragedy. Ironically, the moralistic diatribes about offensive chanting are cut from the same cloth. At their root is the view that fan behaviour is problematic.

The clamour for abusive chants to stop is a strong indication that fear of the football mob hasn’t gone away; it is just expressed in a different way these days. Sure, stadiums are much safer, the perimeter fences have been torn down and it’s rare to see riot police used to control crowds. Today, however, the behaviour of fans is micro-managed. Fans can be arrested for swearing, indecent chanting, entering the playing area, persistent standing and drinking in view of the pitch.

This radical shift to a more intrusive form of crowd management is a direct consequence of the Taylor Report. The post-Hillsborough preoccupation with health and safety provides the pretext for many of the new restrictions on fans. Amanda Jacks, caseworker at the Football Supporters Federation, tells me that health and safety has become an all-purpose excuse for over-zealous bans. Large flags are confiscated if they don’t have a fire certificate. Flags on sticks are considered dangerous. Lids are removed from bottles. Drums are banned for being too loud. Even disabled supporters have had their walking sticks taken off them at the turnstiles. ‘Safety of match-going fans is paramount and we’re certainly not going to argue with the sensible restrictions that are placed on fans’, says Jacks. ‘However, we do have concerns that some practices – such as the removal of lids from bottles of drinks – are far from a proportionate response to the actual risk posed.’

Football is safer after Hillsborough, but, arguably, the game is now in danger of becoming rather too sterile. I’m glad that I’m no longer at risk of being crushed to death at a football match. I don’t want a return to the ‘slum stadiums’. But nor do I want the matchday experience suffocated by health-and-safety killjoys or clampdowns on offensive chanting.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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