What follows is a long, but personally important post:
Yesterday football returned to the Premier League. And, as with every season, a sort of renewal took place: New supporters, some in new seats, supporting new players in new kits as part of new lineups. New managers on the sidelines supported by new backroom staff, and new club employees doing their jobs at new places of work. New match officials. New programme sellers…All of this for a sport many love.
In some ways, new seasons are refreshing. I attended the Emirates yesterday with two good gooner mates, and en route were joined by a true newcomer. A very amiable American gent, and huge Arsenal fan, in the country just six days and up at 4AM Nebraska time just to by a ticket. He introduced himself at King’s Cross, joined us for our pre-game drinks, bought a shirt, enjoyed his first experience of the Emirates and rejoined us for our after game dissection.
Now, lots has been made, post Olympic wonderment – and hopefully more to come – of the state of the game we love. Gary Neville has today written a fine piece on that particular topic, although reading it does mean visiting the Daily Mail. In it he writes:
I’m delighted that the Olympics were so successful and proud of the sportsmen and women who worked so hard to achieve their goals to win medals for Team GB. But it’s just lazy to use their success as a stick to beat football.
He does well to consider things; looking at the effect on players of media coverage, agents and hangers-on, but it’s not just football or footballers’ attitudes that should be questioned. There’s something a lot of people are missing here, and that’s the attitudes of the fans themselves.
After finishing our pints outside the ground, our posse of four made for London Bridge to watch the remainder of the Newcastle vs Spurs match. There’s a Belushi’s on Borough High St and – with a taste for good burgers and a screen-laden venue in mind – we headed there for the second half.
Upon entering it was obvious there were Spurs fans eager for their team to do well. Only me and our new American friend were in Arsenal shirts, but we got a few looks, and a bit of friendly, tongue-in-cheek chat from one guy standing at the bar. He was obviously out to enjoy the day, drinking but level-headed.
He offered his hand in respect and was nothing but playful in manner.
We ordered our food, got some drinks and sat in the corner. By the bar was a young Liverpool supporter, probably all of 17 and absolutely crestfallen at the 3-0 loss to WBA. Across from us were a couple in their 60s and either their son or daughter with boy or girlfriend.
We watched for a while and then Newcastle scored.
Three of us four, including myself and the American (in Arsenal shirts), gave no reaction except to compliment Ba on a fantastic goal. One of us cheered. Not at anyone, not even provocatively, but cheered. I don’t know exactly why. It was a great goal and goal against against Spurs is never bad – it was in the jokey manner the chap at the bar had welcomed us in.
The middle-aged couple looked over.
Our food arrived.
Spurs fans, of whom their were probably twelve in Belushi’s were urging their team on. We sat quietly, talking about football while taking in the game. Jermaine Defoe equalised and the sequence of events that followed are blurred somewhat both by yesterday’s heat (and possibly alcohol), but also by the intensity.
The bar celebrated, but the gent in his 60s, who up until this point seemed rather respectable, stood up and (aimed directly at the four of us) raised his arms, making offensive gestures and shouting something to the effect of:
Guy: YES! GET IN THERE! HAVE THAT YOU GODDAM F*CKING GOONER C*NTS!
Well over the top and aggressively meant. I was stunned to silence (plus my burger was pretty good). So, obviously, was the American and one of my friends. But the other wasn’t and retorted in a considerably lower volume:
F*ck off mate, what was that for?
No answer came and the situation stalled for a while. We chomped more food and looked at each other disbelieving. Newcastle were in the ascendancy, and I had a thought:
Guys, if Newcastle score again I’m not even going to react. I think we should all just do nothing.
Why did I say that? Partly because I’m not one for confrontations and provokingly stoking a fire, but also because I didn’t want the guy to think his ridiculous display worth reacting to. If Newcastle scored again the goal alone would be a blow enough for him.
To be a frank his was a small-minded reaction to my mate’s cheering of a Newcastle goal. But my mate wasn’t being offensive or over the top, and he wasn’t even wearing an Arsenal shirt.
Regardless, I think the football gods must have been looking down on us at that point, and so spurred Hatem Ben Arfa between the flailing feet of Aaron Lennon and Rafael Van der Vaart for a sure fire penalty. We couldn’t help but smile at the guy’s reaction to a rather obvious penalty. We stopped eating and watched the screen.
A great pen, coolly taken, but then:
Guy: YOU F*CKING CHEATING DIVING C*NT!
Shouted the shouter, and it was too much for my mate who’d earlier retorted. He collapsed laughing at the guy and we couldn’t help but laugh at our mate. Not at the guy but at our mate’s reaction. The shouter said something about “f*cking gooner c*nts” and his (I guess) wife – quite rightfully upset by her man’s self-combustion into an expletive mess – stormed over.
What are you doing in here?! You come in here wearing your Arsenal shirts just to make trouble and stir it up!
Stir what up? Jeez. We drew to Sunderland, this is the first game of the season, we’ve come from the game and we’re watching football (because we like to) with a guy just into the country. And we wanted good burgers! This wasn’t a Spurs pub, but a chain restaurant with helpful staff and a jokey Spurs fan at the bar.
My eyes meet those of the daughter (or son’s girlfriend) and I shake my head and shrug shoulders in disbelief. None of us ‘reacted’.
What are you even doing cheering Newcastle goals?!
She demanded. I replied.
Err *pointing to our dumbstruck American friend* me and him are only two in Arsenal shirts and we’ve not cheered anything.
Lady: *Pointing to Mate A* No, but he has!
Mate A: Yes, I cheered a great goal and I’ll cheer any goal I want. I could be a Newcastle fan – how on earth do you know?
At this point the guy comes over to pull his wife away, and hopefully appreciate the embarrassment he’s more than helped cause. The four leave and me and my two mates are bemused by what’s happened as we attempt to assure our new pal that in our experience this is a very rare occurrence. It wasn’t as if we’d walked in a pub at Seven Sisters and started mouthing off. We were in Southwark, being quiet and appreciating a game.
We weren’t looking for trouble, just food, drink and to watch some football. One irate and incomprehensibly wound-up Spurs ‘fan’ made a mockery of all of that.
And I don’t dislike spurs fans. I don’t really dislike any fans. I don’t generalise my dislikes, nor do I do anything other than, occasionally, play up to chat about rivalries and such. What Spurs, or any other club do or do not do is of no consequence to me apart from when it affects either the club I support or the game I enjoy.
And yet here was a gent who was sure we were intent on causing trouble and, probably because he thinks it’s how he should act, was highly offensive to passive supporters of his clubs local rivals. We didn’t really react (“we’re not those kinds of people”), but can you imagine if we did.
So people can say that in the shadow of the Olympics footballers and football needs to cast relative gazes mirror-bound. But I think it’s safe to say some fans do as well.
Because at the start of a new season, a fresh beginning, one thing we shouldn’t renew is the ugly side of support, and any accompanying belief that blanket dislike of other teams’ supporters is anything but damaging to our game.