Football – still a ‘slum sport’

The policing of fans hasn't gone away, it's just become more insidious.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

This is a revised and expanded version of a speech given at the Battle of Ideas satellite debate, ‘Criminalising football fans’, on 30 October 2014.

English football today presents us with a paradox. On the one hand, we hear a common lament from old-school fans that modern football is safe to the point of being sterile; that the Premier League’s family-friendly, all-seater stadiums are soulless and sanitised, filled with glory-hunting ‘plastic’ fans filming the action on their iPads and wearing half-and-half scarves. The atmosphere at many grounds is funereal – a fact borne out by Jose Mourinho’s complaint this week that matches at Stamford Bridge are ‘like playing in an empty stadium’. The hush inside our stadiums is only broken when a goal is scored and a blast of piped goal music serves as a cue for spectators to jump up and down and clap their inflatable clapper sticks.

Yet, on the other hand, supporters’ organisations complain that fans are treated like criminals. They point to the use of policing tactics such as ‘kettling’ and draconian ‘bubble match’ restrictions on travelling fans. The Football Supporters Federation has long campaigned against the use of orders served under Section 27 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006. These are essentially on-the-spot banning orders which enable police to remove fans from a specified area for up to 48 hours if they decide there’s a risk of alcohol-related disorder. So which version of reality is correct? Is football now so anaesthetised that the matchday thrill has been snuffed out? Or are football matches still incendiary events which only need a spark to ignite mob violence?

I would argue that the policing of football fans has undergone a radical shift in the past 20 years, particularly in the wake of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. However, fear and loathing of the mob, which underpinned policing tactics in the 1970s and 1980s, hasn’t gone away; it has merely taken a different and more insidious form. Before Hillsborough, policing was essentially crowd control. Supporters were herded from train stations to the ground by riot police. Inside the stadium they were segregated and contained in metals pens. In short, they were treated like animals. These days, however, old-fashioned crowd-control tactics have largely given way to the regulation of non-violent forms of behaviour.

What has caused this shift? To answer that question you need to look at how football’s status has changed since the 1980s. Back then the ‘people’s game’ was shunned by the establishment. The elite’s contemptuous attitude was perfectly articulated by The Sunday Times, which, after the 1985 Bradford fire disaster, described football as ‘a slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people, who deter decent folk from turning up’. Within a decade, however, official contempt for football had turned to infatuation. Suddenly everyone – from politicians to pop stars, from academics to investment bankers – was a football fan. Football, so long despised by the great and the good, has now been colonised by the chattering classes.

The confluence of several factors created the perfect storm for football’s luvvie renaissance. Firstly, there was Lord Justice Taylor’s report into the Hillsborough tragedy, which directly led to the eradication of ‘slum stadiums’. The metal perimeter fences, which were a key reason why 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at Hillsborough, were ripped out. The old crumbling terraces were replaced by all-seater stands. However, appalled as Lord Taylor was by the ‘poor facilities’ and ‘old grounds’, he wasn’t only concerned with the safety of spectators, but their uncouth conduct, too. As he put it in his report: ‘This inhospitable scene tends to breed bad manners and poor behaviour.’ The prohibition of persistent standing, a restriction which aggrieves fans to this day, was introduced as a result of the Taylor Report and is still justified as a necessary measure to prevent a repeat of Hillsborough.

The Taylor Report, however, wasn’t the only driver of change. The commercialisation of football, fuelled by the sale of broadcasting rights and the creation of a breakaway Premier League, altered the demographic profile of football spectators. The Football Association, in its 1991 ‘Blueprint for the future of football’, consciously aimed to promote the game to more affluent market segments – families and middle-class fans who had caught the football bug after Italia 1990 and Gazza’s tears. Football’s nouveau fans loved the sense of community, passionate cause and identity which fandom provided – and which was conspicuously absent from other spheres of public life – but they were less enamoured by the uncouth, un-PC behaviour of the game’s traditional white, male working-class fans. The new fans craved the devotional rituals of fandom but they wanted it on their own terms. As a consequence, football became a new battleground for the culture wars, which had been simmering within university campuses and public-sector workplaces. A new, oversensitive ‘you can’t say that’ culture, which accompanied football’s gentrification, now rubbed up against the old terrace culture, with its lewd songs and abusive banter.

How have these shifts affected the way football crowds are policed? I would suggest that the old elitist disdain for the ‘slum people’ is still very evident. You still find very draconian crowd-control tactics at certain games – such as kettling, Section 27 orders and bubble restrictions. But most football matches now are actually police-free. Instead, what we’ve seen is a shift from crowd control to the micro-regulation of fan behaviour. There are laws prohibiting drinking in the stands, running on to the pitch, racist chanting and persistent standing. But, increasingly, fan conduct is regulated not by law but by ground regulations, and enforced not by police but by officious stewards. You can’t stand, you can’t smoke, you can’t drink in the stands, you can’t swear and you can’t sing offensive songs.

What we’ve seen, not just in football but in society more broadly, is the elasticity of concepts such as ‘violence’ and ‘harm’, which have been expanded to include damage to feelings as well as physical injury. The policing of football supporters mirrors this inflated definition of violence. These days, when actual violent disorder is extremely rare, it’s foul-mouthed terrace banter that has become the focus of matchday policing. A football ground was once a safe haven in which, for 90 minutes on a Saturday afternoon, you could trade vile and tasteless abuse with consenting adults. Now fans perpetually have to mind their language. It isn’t just racist chanting – which, in any case, is extremely rare – that can lead to supporters being ejected or arrested. In recent years, fans have been arrested for Islamaphobic, homophobic and anti-Semitic chanting. And it doesn’t stop there. Spurs fans have been arrested for using the word ‘yid’ – even though it’s not intended as an insult but as a badge of honour. The arrest of three Gillingham fans earlier this year for calling Rotherham manager Steve Evans a ‘fat Scottish wanker’ provides a glimpse of a joyless future where all terrace mockery is outlawed.

Football fans shouldn’t be above the law. If they commit acts of violence, they should be punished. But they shouldn’t be punished for crimes they might commit – which is the effect of preventative measures such as bubble-match restrictions and Section 27 orders. Nor should fans be criminalised for the use of abusive words or gestures. We need to draw a distinction between physical harm and name-calling – and, yes, that means we need to grow a thicker skin when it comes to insulting chants. If we don’t take a stand against the criminalisation of name-calling, then football culture as we know and love it will be suffocated to death.

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.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today