Scanning the back pages over the last few months it’s evident that, although less of a presence in the game than it once was, racism continues to be an issue in English football. Incident has followed incident, the Luis Suarez affair and Kenny Dalglish’s objectionable response to it being the most high profile.
Whenever racism rears its ugly head the media are always quick to highlight the various initiatives that the FA and the clubs have taken over the years to combat its insidious presence. But although these have been important to football’s gradual marginalisation of racism, what rarely gets a mention is the efforts that have been made by ordinary fans too.
And nowhere is better illustrated than with the campaign to tackle the English Defence League’s (EDL) attempts to build a presence on the terraces.
The EDL first appeared in 2009, as ostensibly a protest group against the rise of militant Islam. The racist tone of much of their literature, examples of racist behavior at their rallies and the fact that many of its leading members were once part of the BNP, quickly undermined their claims to be non-racist.
According to Paul Jenkins, North West Regional Organiser for Unite Against Fascism (UAF), from conception this group has sought to ally itself with an element within football that has been immune to the changes in attitudes towards racism that have taken place in the sport and in the rest of society over the past thirty years.
“The EDL has tried to link up the many ‘casual firms’ that still exist at several football clubs around the country. Not all of the people in these ‘firms’ are racist but there are plenty that are, enough in fact for the EDL to have gained representation at many clubs. There are several firms here in the north, such as the Blades Business Crew (Sheffield Utd) and the Bolton Cuckoo Boys whose members have an association with the EDL. These people can be relied on to come out and protest and instigate violence on the streets.”
the strongest reaction has come from supporters, who in the absence of any meaningful response from the teams they follow have decided to take matters into their own hands.
The EDL’s recruitment model has drawn its inspiration from the behaviour of the far-right in the seventies and eighties. Back then, it was the National Front (NF) who were organising amongst football supporters; managing to gain a presence at several clubs, such as West Ham, Leeds United and Millwall. In a manner similar to today, much of their representation was drawn from the ranks of hooligan ‘firms’ and both the Chelsea Headhunters and the Leeds United Service Crew possessed strong links with the NF.
This presence of the EDL amongst football supporters is not something that has been totally ignored by either the football authorities or the clubs. But although a handful of campaigns have taken place at both a national and a local level, as yet there has been no concerted activity against the EDL, even amongst clubs where the EDL has been successfully organising. Instead, the strongest reaction has come from supporters, who in the absence of any meaningful response from the teams they follow have decided to take matters into their own hands.
“I’d begun seeing fans at the Reebok Stadium wearing EDL t-shirts and through learning more about the EDL began to realise that it was this hooligan element within our fanbase that was partly responsible for the rallies that were happening locally, and also much of the violence that was associated with them. I felt that I had to get involved and do something to stop this.”
Bolton Wanderers supporter Lindsay Bessells is one of many fans who joined together with UAF earlier this season in a concerted campaign to counter the presence of the EDL at several football grounds around the country.
Supporters were able to download a leaflet from the UAF website that informed people as to the true nature and views of the EDL, which they could give out to fans.
“The aim of this” says Paul Jenkins “was to counter their racist lies, to solidify the unity of anti-racist football fans, and to show the EDL that their attempts to divide fans by bringing racism back into our grounds will not be tolerated. We had a great response from fans to the extent that it’s been one of our most popular campaigns to date. Because of this I think it’s one that we’ll definitely do again.”
By mobilising and engaging supporters the campaign has sought to mirror what EDL have done. But whereas that organisation has been appealing to a minority element within football, according to Linda Jones, who leafleted outside of Bradford City, the UAF campaign has been preaching to the majority.
“We’ve leafleted a few times and now and then you might get people refusing to take one or telling you that they are sympathetic to the EDL but in general most fans support what we are doing. As in wider society, most football fans are anti-racist and recognise the EDL for what it is, just another incarnation of the racist far-right.”
Undoubtedly, football’s past hasn’t helped this impression and there was a time when racism was seen as a social norm on both the pitch and the terraces.
This supporter led action harks back to the late seventies and early eighties when, in the absence of any action by the football authorities or the clubs, many fans began to fight-back against the influence of the far-right themselves. In particular, links between the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), and groups of football fans began to spread, to the point where by the beginning of the eighties ANL branches were established at twenty British football grounds. And this more formal organisation is already beginning to take place today with the creation of anti-fascist organisations at clubs including West Ham, Aston Villa and Tranmere Rovers.
Formed last year, Tranmere Rovers Anti Fascists (TRAF) are a non-sectarian cross section of Tranmere fans and local community members concerned at the activity of the EDL and other far-right organisations. Despite their infancy, TRAF have already undertaken a mass leafleting of the ground and run a number of anti-fascist social events in Birkenhead.
“It’s our job to shine a light on both the message and the EDL as an organisation, and reveal the fact that they are no different from any other group of the far right. The EDL was founded by BNP activists, its demos are dominated by Nazi-saluting thugs and right-wing football hooligans, and chants of ‘dirty Muslim bastards’ and ‘we hate Pakis more than you’ are evident whenever they congregate. EDL members are singing from the same hymn sheet as fascist bigots everywhere. And it’s this reality that more supporters need to hear” say Bidston Moss from the group.
The rest of society often looks down their noses at football fans, seeing the actions of a violent and racist minority as the norm rather than the exception. Undoubtedly, football’s past hasn’t helped this impression and there was a time when racism was seen as a social norm on both the pitch and the terraces. The fact that this is no longer the case is in part down to the actions of fans, who, as the campaign against the EDL illustrates, are committed to ensuring that those ‘bad-old-days’ never return.
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