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What is it about football?

The short-lived but intense anger against the proposed ‘Super League’ by a dozen European football clubs – including in London Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea and in the north west of England Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool FC – saw fans take to the streets and protest outside stadia, and against the coaches carrying the squads of those break-away clubs. It’s only the latest outburst of fan demos. What is it about football that it needs protecting against its own fans? asks Mark Rowe.

Pandemic or not, the spring is the time of year when you can be sure that somewhere in Britain, fans are revolting. Their club looks like being relegated, or it’s not doing as well on the field as some fans expect, and fans demonstrate, typically on a car park outside the ground, or on the pavement outside the training ground; or they trespass into the training centre, or on the field of play after a match, and shout ‘sack the board’ or the like.

This week has seen Leeds fans defy social distancing guidelines to protest outside still empty stadia to vent anger against the coach bringing Liverpool FC players and coaches to Elland Road to play a Premier League match; and likewise Chelsea fans let off blue smoke and (either not wearing masks at all or wearing them but not over their mouths, the better to shout) demonstrated at their own team bus, outside their ground, Stamford Bridge in west London. Manchester United fans went into their club’s training ground and similarly made their point.

First point; something about football generally makes fans get loud and become intruders. If, let’s say, you go to a cinema (before or after the covid pandemic) and see a Nicholas Cage or Jennifer Lawrence movie and you were disappointed at how bad it is, you don’t stage a demo outside the cinema.

Second: like so many things – including political and environmental protests, as featured in the May 2021 print edition of Professional Security magazine – fan protests are going on regardless of covid. In the case of Manchester United, some fans have long been protesting against the Glazer family owners. In January 2020, fans to much publicity set off flares outside the home of the Manchester United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, who incidentally has resigned in the wake of the Super League affair.

Third: more broadly speaking, such protests fit onto a spectrum of hooliganism. Numerous studies of fans, whether by criminologists, sociologists or anthropologists – such as by Keele academic Prof Clifford Stott; and Geoff Pearson’s 2012 work An ethnography of English football fans: Cans, cops and carnivals (Manchester University Press) – show that paradoxically, love of a football club is expressed by hate of another, just as one tribe or nation may band together by hating another tribe or nation. As Pearson’s book describes, fans, particularly fans going to away matches, bond through a sense of ‘us against the world’, whether against railway station, train and other uniformed staff, police on-street or stewards inside the ground; and even relish carnivalesque behaviour that they wouldn’t get away with on a working day.

In recent decades as money has poured into the game and seen a transforming of old and new grounds, so money has been spent on surveillance tech, making stadia some of the most CCTV-covered places in Britain; displacing fan disorder out of the ground and to stoning and venting fury at the visitors’ coach, such as Manchester United’s on the occasion of the last West Ham match at their Boleyn Ground before their move to the 2012 Olympic Stadium (pictured). West Ham fans, indeed, have protested against their club’s owners and their team’s poor showing; until this season’s improvement. As that suggests, protest will always be a part of football, as some teams have to be low in a league table for others to be high up, which will dissatisfy some.

Ironically, the very thing that fans deplored about the proposed Super League – that most of the clubs would never be relegated – would in security terms be a good thing, if it took away the motives for demos – your team in danger of relegation – or hooliganism, by coming up against hated rivals in derby matches. It remains to be seen whether the resentments against the six clubs that signed up to the Super League then backed down will translate into aggression shown against them, their big-name players (physical or in online trolling, much deplored by football figures lately) or anyone who wears their shirt in public.


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