With fan violence and verbal abuse rife – is the English game in meltdown?
Published 11/12/2012 | 05:00
Waking to find himself the new public enemy No 1 in football, 21-year-old Matthew Stott did what any self-respecting pitch invader would do and instructed his solicitor to issue a statement apologising for his encroachment in the Manchester derby.
Stott was the chap in the sky blue hat who tried to confront United's Rio Ferdinand but was stopped by City goalkeeper, Joe Hart. In a cry of self-abasement and remorse Stott told the world: "I intend to write personally to Mr Ferdinand to express my extreme regret and apologies and also apologise to Manchester United and their fans. I would like to thank Joe Hart for his actions when I came on the pitch."
Football is now in such a state of fury and ferment that misbehaving fans are now copying the PR moves of celebrities. But if Stott, who has been charged with pitch encroachment, was widely mocked by supporters on both sides, the chaos he helped to generate at the Etihad Stadium was by no means an isolated case of obnoxious conduct.
What we need now, you feel, is a mass rejection by supporters groups of the kind of behaviour so many feel appalled by: backed up not with firefighting against individuals but collective punishments of clubs and groups of supporters, including points deductions and the playing of games behind closed doors, if warnings are ignored. We can no longer go on like this.
The uproar is coming so thick and fast the news cycle barely has time to dwell on each incidence of racist abuse, vile chanting, Twitter meltdown or threatening behaviour on the streets.
Take pitch invasions, in isolation. Stott's "moment of madness" was not the first this season. In October, 21-year-old Leeds fan Aaron Cawley was jailed for 16 weeks for attacking Sheffield Wednesday 'keeper Chris Kirkland.
As the fall-out from Sunday spread, Gordon Taylor, chairman of the PFA, spoke of the need for "netting" behind the goals and around corner flags, where Wayne Rooney was also pelted with objects at the weekend. But Malcolm Clarke, chairman of the Football Supporters' Federation, opposed the use of mesh to protect players.
"Netting is not something we feel is necessary to have," he said.
"No-one condones the throwing of missiles, but arrests last season were 24pc down on previous seasons and not many social phenomena alter that much. It is undoubtedly improving and before we start making knee-jerk reactions to particular incidents we ought to bear that in mind."
Moral panic is easy to diagnose and not hard to exaggerate. This season, though, only the most myopic lover of the sport would deny that the national game is spinning out of control. Even as Stott was crafting his apology with his solicitor (he is "hard working" with a girlfriend of five years), Paul Lambert was discussing the abuse he expects to receive when taking his Aston Villa side to his old club Norwich tonight.
On Saturday, a 23-year-old Swansea man was released on conditional bail after being questioned about the alleged racial abuse of Norwich's black defender Sebastien Bassong at the Liberty Stadium in South Wales. This incident flashed by on the bulletins until it emerged yesterday that Norwich have reported four incidences of racial abuse aimed at Bassong to the police.
Attention turned the next day to the mayhem in Manchester, where a flare was thrown on the pitch, Rio Ferdinand sustained a cut to the eye from one of many coins thrown and police charged nine spectators, from 13 arrests, as groups of fans tried to ambush each other on the way back into town.
The English FA called Sunday's incidents "unacceptable", with their chairman, David Bernstein, describing the crowd problems as "deplorable." The former City chairman said miscreants must be "dealt with severely".
Ritual denunciations are no comfort to the victims. Nor will they protect English football's reputation around the world. The Premier League is a supremely well-marketed circus that generates billions of pounds in worldwide revenue. It can't display the world's two best players – Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – but it can parade the lure of money, excitement, passion.
There is far more to gain than lose by a concerted onslaught against corrosive behaviour. The authorities, though, may think that by waging war they will only draw attention to the game's problems, thus spooking TV rights bidders on distant continents.
There is a community that rejects in all cases the racist abuse of black footballers and chants about Munich, Hillsborough and the Holocaust. But there is also a growing sense that a critical mass is being reached, and that the shackles are off on behaviour that was suppressed for a long time by good policing, educational drives by clubs and perhaps economic prosperity, the breakdown of which often correlates to upsurges in anti-social activity.
On Sunday the six City fans charged for a variety of offences were aged 30, 21, 52, 18, 21 and 20. The trio of United fans facing court dates are 21, 24 and 22. Two were allegedly in breach of football banning orders. These age profiles suggest that alleged trouble emanates from fans who do not feel constrained by football's efforts over the past 20 years to eradicate hooliganism, racism and homophobia.
If football is modern society's great cultural obsession, it makes sense that the worst economic and social tensions would express themselves through football, especially at the highest end, where the stakes have increased exponentially over the last 10 years.
In Manchester alone, hundreds of millions of pounds have poured into the football religion, bringing beauty, drama, household names, celebrity, glamour, an intensified rivalry between City and United and a 'Ben Hur' chariot race for the Premier League title.
It also brought us a problem with public order on Sunday, around 3.30pm, when Robin van Persie's winning free-kick in added-time sent City fans into apoplexy and United's into ecstasy.
In that combustible mix, Rio Ferdinand was left with a blood-streaked face, stewards struggled to keep the two sets of supporters apart and melee moved quickly on to social media. Twitter is now the car park to which a fight now moves and everyone gets involved.
Francis Lee, a vital cog in Man City's 1968 title-winning side, has created a place on Twitter called 'Plebville' to which he sends abusive respondents. But even he was shocked by the tide of filth and loathing that gushed into his timeline in the wake of United's 3-2 win.
Many will point out that Twitter is no more than the authentic voice of wit, wisdom, kindness and often anger, of which there is plenty. Illegality thrives, too: much of it football-based. True to form, Rio Ferdinand was subjected to racial abuse on Twitter on Sunday night.
These are not trivial incidents, to be dismissed as minor blemishes on the beautiful game. However swiftly the police react they are in danger of becoming part of the culture. At Stamford Bridge, where John Terry was allowed to captain Chelsea at Shakhtar Donetsk while serving a domestic ban for racially abusing Anton Ferdinand, Rio's brother, Manchester United's Danny Welbeck was allegedly subjected to monkey chants by Chelsea fan Gavin Kirkham during a Capital One Cup tie.
At Sunderland recently, Newcastle's centre-back was greeted with chants of: "Steven Taylor, we wish you were dead." Newcastle's supporters duly responded with a chant of their own.
On the pitch, players may feel they are model citizens compared to some of those who watch them, but there remains reputational damage to the game from the Luis Suarez and John Terry sagas. The case against racism off the field is harder to make when an England captain and Liverpool's best player are found guilty of offences for which fans can be banned for life.
The furore over Kick It Out and the decision by some black players to boycott their T-shirts in protest at what they see as insufficient rigour in the fight against xenophobia also requires a mention in this context, as does the Mark Clattenburg affair, in which an allegation of by Chelsea players against one of the country's top referees collapsed amid much acrimony.
The invisible consequence of all this is a weakening of the bond between the game and swathes of its audience. Many are already disaffected by soaring ticket prices and the generalised greed of the industry. Even many of those who have become inured to tribal hatred inside grounds are noticing a new level of nastiness. Most disturbing is that rapid police action against racists in stadiums and on social media has not deterred others, despite the penalties and the public shame.
A sociologist might argue that many of the old rules around language have broken down, so that people are now attacking one another with maximum vitriol in the belief that insults ultimately cancel each other out. Those on the end of Twitter assaults or chanting about Auschwitz will not want to listen to elaborate cultural theories.
They will want order to prevail and civility to be defended. The greatest lie of all is that hatred is a form of sporting passion – proof of allegiance.
It is not. It kills the thing it actually claims to love. (© Daily Telegraph, London)