A foul-mouthed haven in a sterilised world

Why Millwall fans should be able to sing tasteless songs about Jimmy Savile.

Duleep Allirajah

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Is it wrong to sing tasteless songs about Jimmy Savile? Millwall boss Ian Holloway thinks so. Ollie was disgusted at the ‘obscene’ behaviour of his own fans who taunted the visiting Leeds fans last weekend with songs about the notorious Leeds-born sex offender. Did the Millwall fans cross the decency threshold? Or was this just normal terrace banter? No points for guessing where I stand on this question. Terrace chants are supposed to be vulgar, offensive and tasteless. That’s the whole point. If you sterilise terrace chants, you’ll destroy terrace culture.

I’ve still got a soft spot for Ian Holloway. He’s an honest, funny and very likeable manager who is always prepared to speak his mind. Plus he took Crystal Palace up to the Premier League and, for that reason alone, he’ll always be fondly remembered at Selhurst Park. But I think Ollie’s got it completely wrong on the Jimmy Savile chants. Millwall fans reportedly serenaded the visiting Leeds supporters with chants of ‘He’s one of your own, he’s one of your own, Jimmy Savile, he’s one of your own’ and ‘Jimmy Savile touched your mum, he’s your father‘. In his post-match interview, Holloway launched into a trademark rant about the tasteless chants. ‘I don’t think the chants were right because they’re disrespecting [Savile’s victims]. What he did is an absolute disgrace’, fumed Holloway. ‘That’s the most important thing and we don’t see it. “Oh it’s a bit of banter”. It isn’t funny, is it? I don’t think so. Nobody likes a laugh more than me but I’m respectful, and that’s what I’m trying to show to Leeds United.’

Look, as banter goes, these chants won’t win any prizes for wit or lyricism. But so what? Who says football chants have to be Booker Prize calibre? Sometimes chants can be brilliantly ingenious and witty. But most of the insults traded from the stands are puerile, playground jibes. Millwall fans are saddled with a reputation for racism and hooliganism so it’s little surprise that this latest example of supposed boorish behaviour was widely reported in the media. But singing tasteless songs isn’t the exclusive preserve of Millwall fans. You’ll hear similarly tasteless ditties sung up and down the country every Saturday afternoon. When Stockport County visited Selhurst Park a few years ago, Palace fans sang ‘Did the doctor kill your mum?’ – a reference to serial killer Harold Shipman. Similarly, when Ipswich fans taunted Palace with chants of ‘shit ground, no fans’ a few seasons ago, our fans’ immediately retorted with ‘shit town, no whores’ – a reference to the ‘Suffolk Strangler’ Steve Wright.

Fans of every club will have their own examples of tasteless taunts. It’s not a symptom of moral decay or a society bereft of a moral anchor. It’s just football banter. And by that I mean that a football stadium has traditionally been a place where normal social conventions are relaxed. It’s where adults go to sing, swear, let off steam and generally behave like kids for 90 minutes. Everyone who goes to football knows the rules of engagement. We know that we’ll be abused, taunted and ridiculed all afternoon by opposing supporters. And we’ll give as good as we get.

And here’s the thing. Nobody takes the insults seriously. The chants are ironic. Fans don’t really mean most of what they’re yelling. Do Millwall fans seriously believe that all Leeds fans were molested by Jimmy Savile? Of course not. It’s just a wind-up. Were any Leeds fans actually offended by the chants? I mean properly offended. I doubt it but you can’t be sure any more. The old terrace culture of trading insults now finds itself coexisting uneasily with a new oversensitive ‘You can’t say that’ culture. Witness all those sanctimonious snitches who are straight on the phone to BBC Radio Five Live’s 606 or TalkSport to complain about tasteless or offensive football chants. In recent years football has become an etiquette battleground. Fans now have to mind their language once they step through the turnstiles. It has been illegal since 1991 to take part in ‘chanting of an indecent or racialist nature’. However, football club-ground regulations are usually more restrictive and also prohibit the use of ‘foul and abusive language’. Inevitably, given the subjective nature of words like ‘indecent’ and ‘abusive’, the boundary between what is and isn’t considered acceptable is constantly shifting. As a consequence, it isn’t just the minority of bigots who fall foul of the language cops these days. Spurs fans who have been threatened with prosecution for chanting ‘Yid Army’ while, earlier this year, three Gillingham fans were arrested for reportedly calling Rotherham manager Steve Evans a ‘fat Scottish wanker’.

You might argue that grown men singing childish songs about Jimmy Savile ought to know better. I look at it a different way. What is valuable about our Saturday afternoons at the football is that they’re a safe haven from the rules and regulations that suffocate public life. A football stadium is still a place where we can express ourselves relatively freely. We can get drunk, yell abuse, hurl playground insults and generally go ape. If we have to mind our language; if we’re forced to stop singing crude and tasteless songs, our society becomes a bit more joyless and a bit less free.

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

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