Tuesday, 26 February 2013

What is acceptable at football grounds? Part II

A few months ago I wrote this piece on what is acceptable at football grounds. It is always ripe for debate and something we, as people who care about the game, should consider. (NB: I go into considerably more depth in that piece so please do pop over and have a look).

Ally McCoist is a decent man and, unlike most, is trying to engage constructively in the debate. I have a number of problems with his well-meaning suggestion of issuing Rangers fans with a songbook. My guess is McCoist would support extending this to other clubs.

Most fans who sing repulsive songs know they are singing repulsive songs and potentially illegal. The morons who make filthy hissing noises at Spurs fans know precisely what they are doing. Their whole point is to offend.

McCoist's solution is based around the presumption that people will follow the lead of clubs but all evidence suggests otherwise. When football fans ignore legendary players and managers making pleas about offensive chanting we may have to recognise that the game is a bogey.
All that might be said for McCoist's suggestion is that the presence of an approved songbook will make it easier for clubs to prosecute or ban fans.

There are other issues. An approved songs list leaves little room for creativity. Would you create a song if it isn't in the hymnbook? One of the joys of football is the creativity of fans and the chants they can come up with. If we must go down this tawdry route surely a ''banned list'' would be preferable to an ''allowed list''. That doesn't countenance, of course, the idea that this will need to be updated almost constantly.

This is all before we get to the knotty issue of who decides what is unacceptable. The club? The fans? The FA? And what is banned? Is it something that is banned by law? Is it something that is offensive? Is it anything the club would rather you didn't sing (and let's think that through in the days of hating owners)? Is it anything political?  Would a club allow or ban chanting through a minute's silence? Or chanting something about the sexual predilections of the wife of a player?

This comes back to a more important discussion about acceptability. What are we willing to tolerate?

Consider the example from last night's Liverpool U21s vs Manchester United U21s. Some Liverpool fans on Twitter suggested that Manchester United fans chanted ''You Black Bastard'' at Raheem Sterling. Manchester United fans immediately refuted this by saying they had actually chanted ''You Scouse Bastard''.

I do not know which side is correct. I wasn't at the game nor did I watch it on television. I cannot comment nor would I wish to do so. Clearly, if the Manchester United fans were guilty they should be met with the full force of the law. Equally clearly, if they were not guilty their name has been defamed (even if that defamation has taken place because of a genuine mishearing by the Liverpool fans).

To me, however, it is the perfect example of the question: what is acceptable? Do we really think it is acceptable that a legitimate defence is ''We didn't racially abuse him. We merely abused him''. The answer might be 'Yes'. If we do answer that question 'Yes' we should not be surprised if football fans - on occasion - cross the lines of taste and acceptability. If I can call a player a bastard along with a few hundred fellow fans why can't I call his wife a whore?

One of the usual parts of this argument is that fans behave at other sports. This shouldn't be dismissed. I have some experience - I regularly attend cricket test matches (including, on a number of occasions, drunken England vs Australia games) and 6 Nations Test Matches. I'm constantly amazed at the difference particularly because the cross-over of the various groups must be larger than we think.

At cricket, I've heard this chant many time:

In the town where I was born, there lived a man who was a thief,

And he told me of his life, stealing bread and shagging sheep.
So they put him in the nick, and then a magistrate he went to see,
He said ''put him on a ship, to the convict colony'',
You all live in a convict colony, a convict colony, a convict colony,
You all live in a convict colony, a convict colony, a convict colony,

Is that humorous? Is that - God help us all - banter? Should it be outlawed? Lord no!

At cricket, people manage to sing these songs whilst very drunk and sitting next to opposition fans who usually respond in kind. I think most, apart from the more sensitive types from Australia, would view this as fairly lame and mostly harmless. This sort of thing at football would be considered ''very vanilla''.

Again, I was at Murrayfield watching Scotland vs Ireland at the weekend. 67,000 people managed to support their teams, without segregating fans, with copious amounts of drink. They managed to do so without any trouble.

Do we want football to be more like rugby? Do we want a jovial atmosphere rather than a hostile one? Do we want an end to segregated crowds? Do we want songs like that above to be sung in jest and without anyone taking any offence? Would it be nice to be treated like an adult and be allowed a drink at a game? And if so, how do we get there?

The answer to those questions might be 'no'. But, again, If the answer is 'no' and we decide that we want football to be different; that we want football to be more tribal, more vitriolic and more confrontational we should, then, not be surprised when fans - when in large, segregated groups, lubricated by pre-match booze and generations of bile - step over the mark. It comes with the territory. We can't argue that we are like tribes but ask people then to behave. Or we cannot, at least, very easily.

Ultimately, we as fans can do something. Ultimately, clubs as private businesses, can do something. I go into some depth on that in my previous piece.

Most of us agree, we do need to do something if we want to move away from the sometimes poisonous atmosphere at games. I'm not sure a ''songbook'' or a ''naughty list'' are the way forward.



Metatone said...

I think a banned list is easier to convert into action than an approved songbook. However, there's a case for both. If there's an official songbook it can help keep the best parts of club history alive.

The value of the banned list isn't quick, but like the social approbation against racist language in wider society, it's a powerful cultural force. Overall in my lifetime (I'm mid 30s now) Britain has become a kinder place to be brownskinned (as I am.) Many of your recommendations in the earlier post are good things, but simple declarations of what is and isn't acceptable do make a difference over time too.

dearieme said...

I think they should ban goal-scorers from kissing their wrists. I haven't a clue what it's meant to signify, but it looks ridiculous.