The last Last Defender: Real football fans

In the first Last Defender article, I questioned the idea that there should be any differentiation between ‘Real Fans’ and those who only attend the occasional game, possibly for a team that didn’t grow up anywhere near.

I hate the term ‘Real Fan’; as I laid out back in October, I think it’s an unnecessarily divisive us-and-them turn of phrase that only encourages fractures in a fanbase that, after all, are only there to watch the same football match. But far worse is the way it distracts from an issue that badly needs help from the very people the euphemism is deployed to repel.

I cannot in good faith trot out the line that football is a pure meritocracy. We still have no openly gay male professional footballers, and attitudes towards women in the game, both on and off the field, remain appalling. Incidents of racial abuse, though not as overt as they once were, still happen. Between those three groups, that’s somewhere between 50 and 75% of the UK population alienated at once – that is not meritocracy.

I can tell you from experience that if you pick any English press box at random, you will find perhaps one or two women and odds are better than not that everyone will be white. Elderly white man Greg Dyke has bemoaned that there are too many elderly white men in charge of the game. Why we don’t have more female coaches at professional clubs is baffling. Players fear coming out because the prospect of setting foot in front of a hostile crowd is so intimidating. And so on. To pretend there is not more to be done is self-congratulatory and disingenuous.

But there are areas in which English football blows away most other walks of life: most notably race, nationality and class. Working-class voices on television are harder and harder to find, and most of the ones under the age of 40 that I can easily call to mind are footballers. It’s easy and fun to scoff at some of the bantz and the japes and the tekkers that inevitably come with Ian Wright, Jimmy Bullard, Soccer AM, and team-bus Vines, and they are certainly not for me – but I’m a middle-class white man, and my appetites are plentifully catered for elsewhere. We’ve never had so much access to so many brilliant writers, broadcasters and bloggers aimed at middle-class fans.

For a large and increasingly downtrodden section of society, though, seeing working-class young men having fun in training or on social media is practically the only remaining positive mainstream representation of working-class people and culture. Now, the feeling – correctly or not – is that we are in danger of losing that too. The further disenfranchisement of those who have least is never to be celebrated.

The cultural intrusion into football seemed to arrive very suddenly in the 1990s, but in hindsight it has been more creeping and gradual. Compared with the life-or-death bombast that now trumpets the impending can’t-miss encounter between Hull and Burnley, there is something charmingly naive about the old Sky Sports adverts from the early years of the Premier League, when nothing said glamour like Anders Limpar and John Wark.

Like all forms of gentrification, saying money is to blame is missing half the story. Money allows sanitisation, which sounds bad unless you stop to consider that the previous unsanitary conditions were occasionally deadly. Sanitisation attracts the middle classes; the middle classes bring money; the money drives the prices up; the working class are squeezed out. Quite often, nobody is to blame for this, per se: it’s economics in action. But what middle-class fans like me are missing when we shrug and say “that’s just how it works” is how important these institutions are to communities that have nothing else left.

It is rational and true to look at the outrage whenever a team moves stadium and say “well, bloody hell, everything was new once, even this old place. It’s just bricks and mortar; there’ll be memories at the new place too”. It is rational and true and thereby misses the point entirely.  Following a football team has nothing to do with rational and true. It’s fierce, dedicated love, and when that is all you have, you bloody well fight for it with everything you have, because fuck it, you might as well.

Sometimes, this presents itself in strange ways, like the vitriol aimed at half-and-half scarves and club rebrands. They’re just knitwear and graphics; they don’t matter! And for 95% of us, we’ve forgotten about it as soon as we click through to the next article. For the other 5%, it’s one thing they thought was theirs that’s been taken away. They’re not even angry about football. Their culture is being killed everywhere around them, and they’re angry because sometimes anger is the only way to keep from slipping into despair.

I concluded the first Last Defender by imploring the half-and-half scarf-hating supporter to embrace the football tourist, because they’re just fellow humans who share the same love of the game. Now, in the last of this series (at least for now), I would like to ask that those who can, do something to help spread that love. Here is a small selection of sport-led charities, but there are many more. Please consider donating to any one of them if you can.

Street Games – making sport more widely available to disadvantaged youth

Football Beyond Borders –  helping young people from low income backgrounds learn life skills

Kick It Out – tackling all forms of discrimination

Steven Chicken – follow him on Twitter