ENING to Radio Five Live’s 606 programme on Saturday evening was to realise that – on a footballing weekend that was dominated by the Kick It Out campaign and who did and who didn’t wear the right t-shirt – the game has still to confront a much more insidious problem.
Put simply, there are elements within the sport who remain “institutionally yobbish” and what happened at Hillsborough on Friday night in the match between Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United made that all too clear.
Never mind the buffoon, arrested yesterday, who ran on to the pitch and smacked the Wednesday goalkeeper Chris Kirkland. Callers rang in to describe the obscene chanting and provocative gestures that created an atmosphere fuelled with bile.
Songs about Jimmy Savile (a fallen icon of the city of Leeds) may strike some as humorous, but most would see them as plumbing the depths. Bottles and seats were thrown, while the authorities (and other fans) looked on. You thought those days had gone? Oh no.
And that’s the point. Because to an extent, we all shoulder the responsibility for allowing the residual elements of the bad-old-days of football to survive and thrive. It’s easy to blame the stewards for not tackling the perpetrators, but they are invariably young and ill-qualified to deal with potentially volatile situations. Which then means it’s often up to us. We’re not talking about the odd swear word used in frustration at an individual’s ineptitude – usually the referee. It is the continued abuse of a player, a manager, an official, or the opposing set of fans, that creates these threatening environments. But have you ever plucked up the courage to turn round to a group of young thugs (or indeed old ones who are often a lot more intimidating) and asked them to stop using racist or obscene language? No. You’ve hoped someone else would step in and sort it out for you.
And if we have a responsibility, so too do managers. What on earth was the Leeds boss Neil Warnock doing on Friday night, in such a highly-charged atmosphere, encouraging his players to applaud their fans for their tremendous support? Provocative and idiotic. That’s him, not them.
It was a weekend which showed that if, as the Kick It Out campaign maintains, we’re all in this together, then the agenda is much greater than just combatting racism. It’s about tackling anti-social behaviour in football on a grander scale, of which racism is but a part.
The brilliance of Juan Mata, and the drama of both matches involving the Manchester clubs, should have been the headline grabbers this morning, but instead we end up debating a sporting political campaign blighted by mixed messages together with loutish behaviour. This is football as a metaphor for the wider society.