It’s funny the things you miss about football, not so much the last minute winners or the five goal thrillers, those are the occasional rewards for your effort. It’s the little routines; the walk into the stadium, the announcement of the teams, the chat with your mates and afterwards the quiet post-match trudge back to the car hearing people deconstructing the game or saying things like ‘see Rotherham won again’. It’s the mundanity of the routine that we’ve been robbed of.
In the Absolute State of Oxford United survey last year, it turned out that fans who sat in the South Stand Upper went to most home games and were most likely to go to away games. This is the stand associated with Werther’s Originals, flasks of coffee and tartan blankets. It’s not all like that, I once saw someone updating their website on a Macbook Pro while waiting for kick-off.
The point being that the football isn’t a high-tension, dangerous, violent experience. It isn’t occupied by purple-faced men overloaded with testosterone singing songs about English bombers.
I haven’t felt threatened at a game of football for years, perhaps decades; even in big derby games when tensions are most likely to froth over, trouble is marginal and elsewhere, for most, the same matchday routines remain.
Trouble happens, I was behind a brief punch-up in the snack queue at Coventry last season; it was over before it began, perhaps someone took offence to a chicken tikka pie.
They undoubtedly exist, the people seen attacking police and urinating over monuments yesterday, but they rarely exist in numbers that materially changes the football experience.
Most likely, you’ll see them at away games when the mix of fans is more randomised than at home. My general experience can be explained through our last two trips to Walsall. In the league towards the end of 2018/19 we were sat in a poor position to the right of the stand. About ten minutes into the game we were surrounded by a group of men arriving late, they couldn’t make it anywhere near the spot behind the goal they coveted and spent the game standing around us. Apart from jostling people out of the way to get a seat and goading stewards, they weren’t any trouble, they seemed obsessed with themselves, reassuring each other how brilliant it was being them. Most people were more interested in the game, which they only had a marginal interest in. They were noisy, but also invisible.
This season in the FA Cup we sat more centrally behind the goal; we got there early, behind us was an elderly couple – classic South Stand Upper types – and behind them another group of lads – East Standers – who got there early to put up flags at the back of the stand. A few minutes before kick-off James Constable came and sat about three seats away and the lads at the back sang songs and nudged one another excitedly. As the game progressed, the noise grew, we scored late on to win the game, the inevitable bundle of bodies engulfed the elderly couple. A couple of the lads tried to create space for the woman to steady herself, when she eventually did, she looked quite ruffled, but with a big smile on her face.
The people in London yesterday are not even ultras like the guys at the back of the stand at Walsall. I’ve been to games where these pseudo-fans have arrived late and left minutes later after we’ve conceded, perhaps spending no more than 20 minutes in the ground. In the heyday of the Yellow Ultras, the real dedicated hardcore fastidiously organised the production of huge displays with thousands of flags. They got to the ground hours beforehand to lay everything out. They were probably too tired to throw a punch, even if they wanted to.
The people we saw on TV are a strangely pointless group; even if they register, they don’t contribute anything to a game. The football mainstream have long argued that they are in the minority and don’t represent the game, but it’s hard to overstate how inconsequential they are to the typical matchday experience.
People have rightly questioned why they would apparently defend a statue of Winston Churchill while giving Nazi salutes. Or claim to be protecting important monuments while urinating on one dedicated to the heroism of a policeman. Or counter-protesting a protest which has already been cancelled.
These are people who go to football, but don’t watch it. Who shout racist and nationalist chants while supporting teams with a mixed nationalities and ethnicities. Who are aggressively heterosexual and frequently overweight while fetishising and idolising healthy dedicated young men. Who enjoy anarchy, but support teams built on hard work, process and science.
To call them ‘far-right’ is to suggest they are following some kind of thought through ideology, to call them football fans is to suggest they represent the culture surrounding the game. Neither seems to be true. The behaviour is so obviously contradictory and random, its only common thread seems to be doing things to upset people, to get a reaction, to gain some kind of social capital. A social capital few recognise as having any value.
A group of lost, pointless, directionless people, desperate to find an identity, to have a purpose. They’re almost 100% male, 100% white, usually English and they look like they’re in their 40s while behaving like horny teenagers. The behaviour is almost comical, they think they’re notorious and dangerous to know, in fact they’re usually ignored or laughed at. There’s something about the experience of some white, males that makes them fearful of being considered pointless, but unable to find a way of having a point. For me, it’s no coincidence that the same demographic has a high suicide rate.
Like the label ‘far-right’ with all its notoriety, labelling them football fans offers a quick convenient answer, like they’re guardians of some ancient tradition. But these simplistic labels also risks ending the debate and leaving the problem unresolved. These are people who are frightened of something (being forgotten?), incapable of functioning in society. It’s not just about the safety of minority groups or the cohesion of society as a whole, it’s about the happiness of those who have come to lead such a pointless existence. Maybe football has a role in all this; a way of trying to find out how someone might get to such a worthless state.