Hostile, foul-mouthed football fans need to step back and smell the roses

Illustration: Gary Neill/The Guardian

Supporters of your football club are angry. And if they are not, it is only a matter of time. Take a glance through every men’s league in the UK and you will struggle to pinpoint a handful of fans who are perfectly content with their lot as 2024 approaches. Football, once a tribal passion worth smiling about, triggers such angst and venom that fresh medication brands may be required. “BASTARD!” they bawl; at the award of a throw-in. Referees live in constant fear of being lamped.

Cliche suggests social media is the root of all evil. Maybe it is. However, there is a level of accountability football club owners and employees have to face because of the internet which is undeniably a good thing. Where this becomes problematic is when the personal abuse dished out to the head of recruitment, the masseur or the chairman’s wife extends to within a stand. This happens, continually, because fans live on the edge between being delighted with what their team is serving up and being utterly FURIOUS at what is occurring. Ask yourself, when was the last time you saw a wonderful goal applauded by even a smattering of opposition supporters? It used to happen. Now, the player who cracks home a 25-yard volley is instantly berated as a “WANKER!” This is surely a miserable existence.

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There is always a danger associated with romanticising the good old days on the terraces. The phrase about welcoming families “back to football” does not stack up when pictures of vast crowds in, for example, the 1950s are taken into account. Match goers were almost exclusively male back then. Still, what such imagery generally depicts is people enjoying themselves. Football gave cause to smile, to enjoy a break from the tedium of work – or that family – and people appeared to revel in the sense of escapism. Faces were rarely contorted.

How times have changed. Football stadiums have never been safer but the constant, baseless vitriol within them has never been greater. People whip themselves into a frenzy at every level from grassroots upwards. It needn’t be illegal to be cringeworthy. Attacks on buses outside grounds have become common, as a precursor to the ranting and raving that transpires after kick-off. Anybody who does not believe this phenomenon exists need merely watch a group of even a dozen supporters for five minutes at their chosen fixture. Eruption is possible at any moment. The referee, the opposition, the board of directors, the steward, the announcer … nobody is spared the wrath of the modern football fanatic. This does not actually constitute supporting a team; it is taking out pent-up frustration on someone, anyone else.

A bemused Jack Grealish turned around and told a Luton supporter to “calm down” during a recent clash at Kenilworth Road. During a break in play, Grealish had the temerity to be standing a few yards from the middle-aged bloke in question. The point is not to pick on Luton, instead that what Grealish encountered is perfectly typical. Players, placid types these days, frequently look at the screaming faces of paying customers with quizzical expression. It is those on the field whose careers depend on matches. In Scotland, Celtic were slumping to a first home domestic defeat in 52 games as the stands broke into chorus of “Sack the board”. The chairman was politely ordered to “Get to fuck”. This is a club with a mere 39 honours since the turn of the century.

It is also dangerous to generalise. One cannot be misty-eyed about a period when golf balls and darts were common terrace missiles. Racist and homophobic chanting would be far more common in the 70s, 80s and even 90s than is the case now, when incidents are highlighted and shown the disdain they deserve. The game itself has never been as cultured and supporting of skill as in this era. Suggesting football was simply a better place in a bygone age is not at all the point. It is just that attitudes have altered to the degree that completely losing the plot over something, anything, within 90 minutes has been normalised. This cannot be healthy for the overall culture of the sport if, as seems likely, it only gets worse.

This is not preaching from an ivory press box. I was capable of bursting blood vessels at mildly controversial decisions given against my beloved Heart of Midlothian before – quite recently – contemplating what the purpose of attending football actually is. I came to the conclusion this is, whisper it, supposed to be fun. It is a pastime, not life or death.

The connection to a club is a key element of fandom, of course, and poor results should never be shrugged off. Nobody is reasonably stating football must turn into the Henley regatta or, even worse, rugby but there should be a semblance of what it actually means in the grand scheme of life. Foaming at the mouth because a second choice right-back shanks a pass into the stand isn’t really a valid use of Saturday afternoons. When the fun stops, stop.

This weekend, a batch of managers will try desperately to cling on to their jobs after merely a handful of bad results. Players from Aberdeen to Aberystwyth will attempt to placate baying mobs. Football would be a finer, friendlier place if time was taken to step back and smell the roses. The beautiful game has a noisy, hostile backdrop.


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