No, we aren’t talking about Riggsy’s BBC Radio Ulster music show but more specifically football fans’ behaviour at grounds which has become topical recently. Billy Weir made a few interesting points in his column the other week. Here in Northern Ireland we could harrumph and claim we are more than a North channel away from some of the goings-on bedevilling Scotland at the moment. In England, racism is the issue which is getting a weekly outlet in football and of course for racism there, we can substitute sectarianism here. But I don’t really think we can crow about anything and all of us know some grim stuff we have seen at Irish League grounds.
We can start and work from the neck down if we like on this one. Sadly, in discussive attempts to deal with it by local fans, key and sensible points tend to get lost in tribalism and nothing moves on. Insert Ireland in general here if you like. The recent ridiculous behaviour by some visitors from Tyrone to a bar in Sandy Row who thought they were impressing the locals was a case in point. In rightly calling it out in the first place, the local media ended up showing how infected they are by the same sectarianism as the rest of society here as pointed out by a few commentators. To that end was the point lost? Ergo, if the other side calls it out it doesn’t count is the unwritten mantra in these parts. 800-year-old sigh!
There’s the thing. Football, the global game is society at play. This being the case, the good and bad of society is equally as prevalent here if not more than elsewhere. Corporate and social constraints can be reduced due to the ‘time-off’ mentality, crowd excitement and of course alcohol to flag a few factors up. Societal or not it does not excuse, but it does highlight how difficult it is to manage. Or is calling it societal just an excuse for simple bad behaviour?
Over here in Northern Ireland there have been a few infamous moments in football grounds. The Irish Cup final of 1983 and ‘Morgan day’ decider in April 2005 between Linfield and Glentoran fans tend to come to mind fairly quickly. But without being hierarchical, that’s not what we are really on about here. Some would argue that is blow over stuff which the media love because it enables them to hype for the next time, and then condemn from on high. I see what they mean but anything not under control is not good whatever way you look at it, and that is being very generous. What we are on about here is more the insidious and toxic stuff beside and around you which you know is just wrong, no matter who says it. Stuff that crosses the line or as a colleague pointed out to me, stuff that football fans find unacceptable. How many moot points does one want to juggle?
How do you know it has crossed the line? First of all, you just know without really having to be told. If you are having to think about it you probably have a fair idea it is not acceptable. Other pointers mentioned are that you won’t get it in other sports. That is a fairly low-bore microscope to examine with as you are into individual game culture there; ice-hockey being the best example though not the best illustrator as that is on the ice.
Rugby types, for example, love to pontificate in their constipated sanctimony on better behaviour in their game, but their game isn’t societal. That’s not to say they aren’t wrong but their game does not excite the blood pressure in the same way. It is more of a pastime and an extension of their social world with boundaries erected to maintain that. Again, that is no out for football.
Football really doesn’t help itself though. Birmingham fans clapping the clown who got arrested assaulting Jack Grealish! Really? This could have happened anywhere with the same reaction and that is the throbbing poison we are talking about. Likewise, players don’t help themselves either in many cases.
‘Across the line’ behaviour within a football crowd will probably also be confined to a minute few. In the Irish League because of smaller crowds and smaller grounds, the impact of poor behaviour can have a bigger effect. Underlying all this are changing mores in society, primarily due to the increased reach and demand of the consumer and the media. Attached more firmly to this now is the higher profile and interest surrounding the game.
So is there a balance to be struck? Balance? What talk is this? Broadly speaking there are those who seek to grow the game on all levels and those who don’t want it sanitised. Sanitised tends to be the word that knocks around. It maybe isn’t the most accurate term but essentially many folk like football because it lets them blow some steam. That steam probably is the real issue insofar as that appeal probably needs to be kept to some degree, whilst isolating the unacceptable. ‘Steam’ though is one large brushstroke but it allows folk an escape from everyday life, but it shouldn’t mean poor behaviour.
There are many who attend who don’t need extra crowds to enjoy Irish League football. But the ball is certainly rolling in its form as a product – which is the way NIFL, for example, would see it. If you subscribe to improving the game and getting more crowds, bearing in mind the clubs certainly do, then NIFL have a possible advantage. This being that in that the Irish League ‘family’, fans are actually a much closer and manageable unit than they like to let on.
Billy Weir correctly highlighted the recent Joe Gormley incident as beyond the line and Crusaders acted swiftly and properly. I would imagine that sort of action will be seen more often. The difficulty will be where issues are raised and there is a dispute over what is before and across the line. A possible example is the recent different shade of opinion David Healy and David Jeffrey had via the media over abuse of Healy and Roy Carroll from Ballymena fans.
In the bigger picture, this is not one of the more burning issues in the game here right now but as time goes on I think it may well be. Football here is moving forward in various upward directions which you all know about. The nature and character of it may well alter as well. As can be seen across the water, the likes of abuse subjected to Raheem Sterling at Chelsea, whether it was racist or not is starting to get called out. Fans who reckon they can hide in anonymity in a crowd are having the light find them. I can imagine the camera phone may well start to cause more damage to a few but we’ll see.
Basically, whatever happens further up the football food chain will eventually happen here. You can decide if that is a good or a bad thing. The other matter which arguably is the bigger issue is whether ‘before’ the line behaviour in football comes under the lens too. That’s that steam rising again. In which case we can keep defaulting to the start of this column over and over again in ever-decreasing circles. I wonder what Julian Assange makes of free speech on the Irish League terraces.