Coin-throwing is only worst of hate culture

Sarah Winterburn

Have you noticed how football often praises itself for not behaving like wild animals, or for just doing something which is the least we should expect from civilised, empathetic humans?

Not jeering or booing through a minute’s silence? Brilliant. Well done.

Applauding a badly injured player off the pitch? Almost saintly.

Not urinating in someone’s garden on the way to the game? Well behaved.

Not breaking up a stadium after an opposition player goads you with a hand gesture? Holy.

Didn’t poo in someone’s mouth? Classy.

Not coining anyone? Very restrained. After all, your side was rubbish.

Football can be very reverential about itself, even though there is a simmering culture of hate to football culture that never goes away.

Almost certainly like you, I have never caused any trouble before, during or after a football match and I never will. Yet the riot police vans are still a presence at every Hibernian or Boro game I go to. They have no need to police me. All I’m going to do is go in the Iona Bar, have a few whiskies, watch Hibs, have a few laughs and then go home. But the riot cops are still considered necessary because football fans can’t be trusted.  Sometimes it seems over the top, because you don’t see a lot of trouble – not like in the 70s and 80s when trouble was a hateful way of life.

But then someone throws a coin into the face of a footballer and your heart sinks. What sort of person does that? That it is absolutely disgraceful shouldn’t need saying. The fact the culprit wasn’t immediately pointed out to a police officer and arrested, covers no-one in glory.

Just when you think that football has got over its violent tendencies, something happens to disprove it. But maybe it shouldn’t surprise us. There’s a strong, indelible stain of hate in football culture and it’s always there, so much so that we take the milder aspects for granted.

You can see a lot of it play out online. All of us who have written about football in the internet age (this is my 16th year writing for F365) have been abused, insulted and threatened many, many times. The amount of people who just want to have a go at you is extraordinary. In no other job would this be even legal. If you work on the tills at Sainsbury’s and someone starts rowing with you because you said you liked tomatoes and they hated tomatoes, and then progresses to calling you a ‘f**king c**t’ and ends with threatening a violent assault, the police would be called and the perpetrator considered some flavour of crazy. But in online football writing (though not exclusively), abuse seems to be part of the entertainment for some.

You try to become pretty immune to it all, but there are only so many times anyone wants to be called a t**t in any one day before it begins to negatively affect you, so you end up restricting your exposure to the hate. It shouldn’t be like that. But there seems to be anger simmering under the surface all the time. The football hate culture is never far away.

Quite a while ago, I made the mistake of writing a few pieces of largely comedy anger at things in football and life that got on my wick. Things such as people saying ‘the proof is in the pudding’ when the expression is ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’. Without the eating, you have no proof of anything. Not highly intellectual stuff, I know, but even so, mail soon came to me with suggestions of other things for me to hate. It was incredible. And the level of bile directed at the targets of these people’s hatred was disturbing. This isn’t a joke – someone insisted I have a go at Fiona Bruce for not having big breasts! These were not comedy e-mails, these people were serious, their language was violent and they were football fans. After three or four weeks, I stopped. It seemed to be the writing equivalent of hitting a wasps’ nest with stick.

What it taught me was that if you give a platform to negativity and hatred in football, it is soon occupied, as though always waiting for an opportunity to express itself.

Even now, when asking for suggestions as to who should be this week’s Footy on the Telly subject, I get a few people responding with suggestions purely because they want the subject to be given “a good kicking”, even though it’s not that kind of piece. There’s often real anger towards people, or at least the language of anger.

Most other sporting events don’t require the deployment of riot police. Is it just the volume of numbers going to football that means there’s always a few bad apples?

Football is important in one way, but not at important at all in another, more grown-up way. I fully understand it is a context within which to express your own frustrations. I totally understand it is a valve to release the burning steam of everyday living and everyday injustices. And it can be really bloody annoying. It allows us to shout and swear in a prescribed environment, But the gap between that and coining someone is cavernous.

It is a tiny minority who do these sorts of things, but we all – and I’ve hooked up with so many funny, clever and lovely people through football media – suffer for the behaviour of that minority. And it is not divorce-able from football’s broader hate culture, which just won’t go away. Is it because some humans are just no good? Or can we do something about it on both a micro and macro level?

My mother, God rest her, used to tell me as child, “just be a nice lad, our John. If you can’t say anything good, don’t say anything at all”. Well, we might all be out of a job in football if we stuck rigidly to that, but we could do worse than follow the spirit of those words and at least try to dilute football’s hate culture with something more positive.

John Nicholson