Wednesday 25 April 2018

Bile streaming from terraces strays into sickening territory

Mindless thugs and bigots are engaged in a relentless war that keeps sinking lower, writes Daniel Taylor

Daniel Taylor

Hostility will always be there in football. It is unshakable, we are obliged to live with it and, no matter how much they crank up the prices and try to go upmarket, many of us actually quite like it that a football crowd will never look or sound like anything you will find at the local regatta.

Football would be strangely bland without its rivalries and vendettas, but the problem when you operate by rules that will not be found anywhere else is that there are some who plainly think nothing is out of bounds. It is getting worse, or at least it can feel that way when, week by week, the stories come back about the latest songs mocking the death of Gary Speed, or Billy Sharp's baby son, or Emmanuel Adebayor's Togolese team-mates -- anyone, in fact, who can serve a use once they are on a cold slab.

At Pride Park this week, Derby County supporters could be heard in large numbers rejoicing that six weeks ago Nottingham Forest's 54-year-old owner, Nigel Doughty, was found dead in the gymnasium of his home. "Where's your chairman gone?" they sang during the east Midlands derby, followed by, "You're going down with your chairman" and a selection of other delightful ditties.

On the same night there were eye-witness reports from Liverpool fans of Evertonians in the away end at Anfield putting their fingers across their faces to mimic the crushing of flesh against steel at Hillsborough. At least on this occasion it seems to be only a handful of people involved but, however hardened we become, it is not an easy thing to understand how anyone, let alone fellow Liverpudlians, can take malicious pleasure when the human suffering is so extreme.

The point is that football should be passionate and chaotic and if it gets bad-tempered sometimes, that is fine, to a point. It's football, we all know what we are letting ourselves in for and, in a strange way, the partisanship and tribal rivalry is all part of the allure. But, surely, a line must be drawn.

It is an anything-goes mentality, often perpetrated by people who would never dream of acting that way outside of a football ground but follow, like Daleks, in the anonymity of a crowd. The Telford fans who sang about Speed's death when they played at Wrexham recently. Or those Manchester City supporters who argue it is acceptable to refer to Manchester United as 'the Munichs' on the basis it is just a nickname that has evolved over the years. To which the best response is: "Go see the New York Yankees and try calling the locals 'Ground Zeros', see where it gets you."

Nottingham Forest's supporters were understandably outraged by what happened at Pride Park but they, too, have previous when it comes to mocking the dead, going back to playing Chelsea shortly after Matthew Harding's death in a 1996 helicopter crash. Which at least reminds us that the propensity for this kind of malice is not a new thing. In January, when Leicester City visited the City Ground, there were also chants from the home end of "you're just a small town in Baghdad" and "you used to be English, you're not any more". At other times Leicester supporters have been regaled with, "You're just a town full of Pakis", particularly from Leeds fans. The volume might have been turned down a little on football's bigots, but not as much as people would care to think. I was told this week that several Bolton Wanderers players contemplated walking off the pitch when they played at Millwall in the FA Cup last month.

At least in Italy Juventus fans stopped mocking Torino's 1949 plane crash once they had experienced their own tragedy, on the crumbling terraces of Heysel. Yet there are still significant numbers of Manchester United and Liverpool supporters who seem intent on using human suffering as their choice of artillery.

Mostly, through the deaths at Munich, Hillsborough and Heysel, but anything or anyone will be used if it can score a few points on the sickometer. George Best, Ken Bigley and Harold Shipman have all been brought into the equation and it is now so much the norm it barely warrants a mention in the sports pages. A strange battle goes on about who is to blame, and who has sunk the lowest. You could call it a war, except wars have endings. And the justification, every time, is the same: "They started it."

There are, of course, considerable numbers who find all this repellent but it is futile to think it will change. This is football, remember, where fear and loathing leads to the crudest smear tactics. Like the guy on Twitter recently who was caught sending racist messages to various footballers. When the police tracked him down they discovered he was a United supporter, living in South Africa. On Twitter, he had been posing as a Liverpool fan. His explanation was simple: he was simply trying to stir things up for a club he didn't like.

On YouTube, meanwhile, you don't have to look too hard to find the footage of the four-year-old boy riding his scooter and showing that he has learned the words to one of our oldest football songs. You might recognise the words: the full, unedited version of the Munich, "Who's that lying on the runway?" The good outweighs the bad in football. It's just a close-run thing sometimes.

Manchester United are planning to improve the noise levels at Old Trafford by sticking away supporters in the most vertiginous part of the ground. A corner has been found in the third tier of the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand and there will be a trial run when Aston Villa play there on April 15. Villa fans should bring their binoculars.

This is not an original idea. Sunderland have seen Newcastle do it and are planning the same next season. Manchester City have experimented with something similar during a couple of Champions League matches. Yet City have now abandoned the idea, in part because they realised that moving the away fans out of earshot might actually damage the atmosphere.

There would, in essence, be nobody for the home supporters to outshout when it is often the interaction between fans that helps to generate the noise. United may come to realise that their neighbours have made a good call. Observer

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