I can remember one day at my senior school, an average comprehensive in the bleak town of Gosport, a load of kids in the year above me (apparently notorious for being one of the worst years the school had ever had) playing for the basketball team, upon being defeated quite narrowly by a rival school, decided against going back into the changing rooms and while the other team were getting changed headed straight out into the tree-lined car park and smashed every window in their minibus before letting the tyres down and running off.
When my friends and I heard about this, we initially thought it was pretty funny; tribalism between schools in my area was alive and well in 1995 and we didn’t expect much reproach. After all, it’s not as though we’d done anything. My year’s football team (which I continually struggled to get into) had been playing an away game and were literally miles away from the incident.
It was received with great shock when our head teacher announced the next day in an assembly that all sports teams of all ages would no longer be allowed to participate in competitive sports with other schools for the rest of the year in light of the incident and that all individuals directly involved had been suspended from school entirely. We were outraged. How could this be possible? We’d not done anything, and most of us didn’t even know the chaps that had. We were being punished because of the actions of less than ten individuals. A few bright-eyed and bushy-tailed pupils even tried to reason with the head teacher in his office (they were 15 years old, so they still thought that adults and teachers actually cared what children thought).
Although at the time I was mortified that I wouldn’t be able to play football for the school for the foreseeable future, looking back on it, it taught me a lesson. This lesson was brought front and centre of my mind when I arrived back from out of town late last night and heard reports and later saw footage of West Ham fans throwing up Nazi salutes, hissing to simulate the gas chambers and singing ‘Viva Lazio!’ and ‘Can we stab you every week?’ to fans of Tottenham Hotspur during Sunday’s game.
The response by right-thinking West Ham fans, supporters’ groups, the internet and the club itself was what really interested me though. At every feasible juncture, the statements, comments and responses were falling all over themselves like Queens Park Rangers trying to defend a set piece to use one word. And that word was ‘minority’.
It’s always a minority, isn’t it? Or a ‘vocal minority’, sometimes. An empty vessel surely rattles the loudest.
Let’s be clear. These actions, whether they be football-related violence, racism, anti-semitic or inappropriate chanting, reflect on all of us. If you’ve ever, even in a passing conversation, referred to yourself to another human being as a ‘fan’ of a football team these actions are a reflection on you. You are part of the floating, confusing, occasionally bombastic, but more importantly HUGE organism that is the football industry. You share a pastime and a passion with some of the most disgusting, closed-minded, bigoted people on the planet. How does that make you feel?
There has to come a time when dismissing poor behaviour and in some cases criminal activity as a ‘minority’ or a ‘vocal minority’ has to stop. ‘Oh they’re not REAL fans…’ you’ll occasionally remark, whether you’re a season ticket holder, a radio presenter, a writer or a pundit, ‘...they’re not interested in the football, just causing trouble.’ They’re not. They’re really interested in football. They travel all over to watch their team, they think about it as much as you do and they look forward to their weekend game every inch as passionately. They cannot be dismissed. They are you.
The point is that we all have a responsibility to monitor the behaviour and raise the consciousness of our fellow football fan. Fandom should not preclude us from questioning and criticising supporters of the same club. If we want to take the credit when a group of fans raise a load of money for charity, unveil a witty banner, come up with a funny chant or travel in their tens of thousands to an away game to show just how dedicated they are, then in return we must take the responsibility when a group in our number behave appallingly. And authorities should start punishing everyone associated with the club until it stops. Not because it’s fair but because IT WILL WORK. Dismissing it as the ‘minority’ is an easy way out and the short journey to saying ‘we’re not going to do anything about it because most of our fans are fine’. The only way to stop this behaviour is clear. And it starts with you and me.
Meting out blanket punishments across the board to clubs in their entirety, whatever form that takes, will motivate people to start making an effort to raise the consciousness of the average football fan and teach offenders that it is not acceptable to behave in this way. Fancy shouting a monkey chant at a black player? Fine, but your team will be playing to an empty stadium for the next three weeks. See how popular you are down the pub then.
The reason I mentioned the anecdote about my school’s basketball team at the top of this is because the long-term outcome of this punishment meted out actually raised the consciousness of our school’s attendees. People who usually wouldn’t have said anything back to an older kid in the year above, when faced with the prospect of not being able to play football/basketball/rugby anymore, were suddenly very pissed off and spoke to older brothers and sisters and arranged for their boys culpable to write a letter of apology and offer to try and pay somehow for the damage done. There were no further incidents of this type at the school for the rest of my time there.
And, more importantly, after a short while I was free to sit on the bench for my school team again. Lucky me.
Luke Moore is a founding member of The Football Ramble, and can be heard on the podcast every week. He also has contributed to ESPN, BBC 5 Live, BBC Radio London, Sky News and ITV.