'Man United fans who come from London are a joke’ is a real Facebook group. It’s a sentiment echoed up and down the country prompting kids in playgrounds to nervously justify their allegiance through an uncle or granddad (aunt or grandma) whose postman had been to uni in Manchester.
Now I’m not here to judge. In our free society kids and their parents are well within their rights to follow whichever team they so desire. Hell, the Cockney Red can be traced as far back as the 1958 Munich air disaster and the ensuing national outpour of public sympathy. However, supporting your side from a distant location can breed a certain type of fan: the overly defensive, overtly passionate, retro-jersey wearing moron who will always have one more stat (of questionable validity) than you.
Perhaps having to constantly justify oneself from such a young age has a lasting psychological effect. A degree of bias is an affliction upon all football fans but this type seems so devoid of any objectivity you have to wonder if it’s a manifestation of clinging to that postman.
Sitting in an east London pub, I overlooked the fact that this man pronounced the green stuff on the pitch as “gr-arse” but he would go on to claim that Wayne Rooney’s transfer request was down to him being Scouse and thereby unable to understand the club’s history. For fear of a beating or at the very least some abuse, I was able to stop myself short of using the word ‘hypocrite’ but sure enough that was all I could think of.
Amongst all the contempt for some Cockney Reds there is, actually, much to be admired. They’ve set themselves apart without a thought of being ‘one of the bottle’ and taken on all the mockery just to support a club with which they identify themselves. They share many characteristics with the next group on the evolutionary scale of football fandom: foreign fans.
Football has changed. The establishment of the Premier League and the Sky era has seen an exponential increase in global viewership. With it also came the dawn of the armchair fan. It’s easy to forget that it is only in the last twenty years or so that people have been able to proclaim themselves (rightly or wrongly) ‘true’ fans without being regulars in the stands. The global reach of the Premier League has lead to supporters’ clubs appearing in all corners of the globe. You only have to switch on Sky Sports News on a Thursday afternoon to notice Asian faces outside Old Trafford’s Megastore.
I once overheard a man tell his friend, “yeah mate, chinks fucking love Man U”. I was about 11 at the time and had just walked past with my dad, who was wearing a United jacket. Like most kids, watching and playing football meant everything to me. Unlike most kids though, football was where I suffered the most racism.
Without wanting to paint further generalisations, football culture has always been reputed to lack a certain tact and what didn’t help was that I was the only ethnically Chinese I either played with or against. “Slit-eyed twat” and “yellow bastard” is not something anyone needs to hear, least of all whilst growing up, and has probably lead to a few ill-timed challenges on my part.
The point I’m trying to make is that the tribal culture of football is a natural progression of people taking sides. It holds little regard for those in the stands or on the pitch and is inextricably linked to difference and therefore race. This is not a defence of racism but merely a reason for why it occurs.
This leads to a poignant point in modern football. Following the Luis Suarez/ Patrice Evra and John Terry/ Anton Ferdinand affairs the question has been whether the accused were racist. Of course, being a racist is to be deplored but we do live in a free society where one’s beliefs belong to oneself. The punishable issue is whether they have demonstrated racist language or behaviour, which both were found to be guilty. No one, least of all Kenny Dalglish, should be supporting it.
It is accepted that racism is a problem in society but the issue is slightly different in football. I dread to think that all of Mario Ballotelli’s abusers at the recent Roma game would all be willing to do the same in the street. As the FA descends into confusion surrounding the length of its bans, the football authorities, not just the FA, need to know what they are punishing. Racism is not to be stood for regardless of whether you meant it or not, whether it is used to put players off or simply for tribal banter.
Children who grow up buying into the ‘tunnel vision’ of football tribalism inevitably grow up to be those with little knowledge about the game. Who turn up on a Saturday afternoon to taunt the away fans rather than analyse the match. Football’s past does owe much to this type of fan but let’s move into the 21st century.
I never did say anything back to that man in the street. I didn’t need to tell him that I was born and raised in Manchester. Nor did I need to mention that my dad was in the Stretford End for Denis Law’s back heel that relegated United (it didn’t really but we’ll run with the myth) and George Best’s final game. All of which leads me back to that Cockney Red. The natural response was to give him stick, but despite his ridiculous opinions, I found out he was an Old Trafford regular. So step back before you give someone shit for who they support. Let’s give them stick for having shit opinions.