England fans’ stag-do mentality deserved a snub not players’ applauseHarry Kane (left) and Jordan Pickford applaud the fans after England’s victory against Spain Seville.
We appear to be in that period now that could probably be described as the backlash against the backlash. Social media have certainly been a frothy place since a few of my journalistic colleagues had the temerity to write about England abroad and how, in short, it can be a bit wearing treading through the broken glass or watching brave lads in expensive trainers trying to pick fights with stationary cars.
The people who make it their business to cause offence seem to be offended that anyone could possibly be offended, though I am not entirely sure they will get the irony bearing in mind a lot of the ones who have inserted the words “no surrender” into the national anthem and sing about the pope – more than they sing about, say, their own captain – also make the Irish pub their first port of call when visiting some of Europe’s more vibrant cities.
Each to their own, I suppose, but I am also aware the relevant people have no interest in being lectured by anybody from the profession portrayed by Spitting Image as pigs in trilbies and I would not want to come across as holier-than-thou anyway. Lots of us like a drink when we are going to the match with our mates and, if you have travelled abroad to see your team, it can be part of the fun to examine the theory that beers are always that little bit colder outside your own country.
Not all of us, admittedly, find the occasion unfulfilled without the reassuring sight of a freshly booted-off wing-mirror littering the pavement. Plus, if you have seen the video from Seville, I am sure the lad who necked the bottle of Sambuca and had to be carted off to hospital will probably agree, on reflection, there were better ways to spend his afternoon. But let’s be careful not to demonise everyone who travels abroad with England when I imagine it must be demoralising, to say the least, for many in that number to be lumped into the same bracket.
The editor who picks up on my mistakes and knocks this column into shape for the Observer each week, for one. His association with England’s travel club goes back to a 1-1 draw in Poland in 1991, with Chris Woods, Geoff Thomas and Andy Sinton in the starting lineup, and he has been following the team round the world ever since. You might think he is a lunatic (sorry, Philip). To him, and many others, it is part of football life, and one they clearly enjoy.
Yet it is not always fun, by his own admission, and if the good does outweigh the bad it can be a close‑run thing sometimes. I asked him why he still did it and his answer was revealing. “I don’t want them to beat me,” he said. “I don’t want to stop going because of the sense that I was driven away.” He also takes a certain amount of pleasure – and there are plenty who will empathise with this – from demonstrating on foreign excursions that English football fans do, in fact, know how to respect other countries.
Unfortunately, that can feel like a losing battle sometimes, but it is also worth pointing out that the police and security officials who travel with England actually have it easier now than when the fan base was a meeting place for every serious football hooligan in the country, when the racism was even more blatant (without wishing to sound flippant about the Tommy Robinson groupies who pollute the away end nowadays) and there were far more sinister and dangerous people on the planes and ferries.
The problem is different now: a new generation of fans who are younger, less worldly and not so inclined to fight, despite all the bravado, but who operate with what the travel club organisers call a stag-do culture and “anything-goes mentality”. These are the people who prefer to congregate outside, rather than inside, the pubs, singing with the deliberate aim of provocation, wearing their xenophobia as a badge of honour and soaking each other with beer rather than actually drinking it, the old-fashioned way.
All the gear, no idea: lads in designer labels who don’t really understand, or particularly care, why other people might think they are being dickheads, and who made themselves highly visible in Seville, Amsterdam, Dortmund and various French cities in Euro 2016 yet, funnily enough, were conspicuous by their absence in Russia for the World Cup. The lads who are fond of making a scene, who bleat on about national purity, who are insular and territorial and validate the theory, to borrow a line from Cyril Connolly, that the English are “sheep with a nasty side”.
A lot of the time, I’m not even sure they realise, or actually give a damn, how it must look for the locals to see their squares and promenades annexed, littered and vandalised amid a soundtrack featuring, among other numbers, “Fuck the pope/IRA” (take your pick). These types are a magnet for the police, their presence will always attract the television cameras and the greatest change, in this age of the phone camera, is that it is never long before the footage is uploaded to social media and, in the worst cases, lifted by various news outlets.
What used to be unreported can now go viral in minutes. They have their fun. They sing about stuff they might not really understand and, frankly, it doesn’t seem to register that by rubbing up against their hosts like sandpaper they are doing their own country down, creating a stain that is going to be hard to wash out and leaving various European cities – the families, for example, who went for an evening stroll and had to witness all that unpleasantness and stupidity in Seville last weekend – with the unfortunate impression that, in England, our football fans actually high-six.
To be clear, this is written by someone who does not like the way modern football has become so sanitised. I quite like the way Arthur Hopcraft put it in The Football Man, going all the way back to 1968, that “football crowds are never going to sound or look like the hat parade on the club lawns of Cheltenham racecourse”. I like the fact it’s noisy, a bit sweary and the chance to unload a bit of emotion. I was brought up on the terrace culture and the tribalism that exists in the sport.
With England, however, it is just tiresome. The no-surrender chants have been a fixture in away games since at least the late 1980s – 30 years, for heaven’s sake – and the volume always tends to go up a few notches when the beer is cheap, as it was in Seville, and the kick-off late.
Philip first heard “Ten German Bombers” around a friendly in Portugal in 2004 and when England played in Dortmund in March last year we had the full version in all its glory, more than once, from an incalculable number of people – let’s quit this “tiny minority” bull, shall we? – with their arms spread wide, pretending to be a fleet of fighter planes.
The footage of England’s end showed people making Nazi salutes and throat-slitting gestures. One member of the choir could be seen holding a finger above his lip, Hitler‑style, in between gesturing that he would take a knife to the Germans. Some were banned but many others were never identified. It is way more than a few harmless, boozy chants or the now-familiar response (forgive me for finding this one mildly amusing) whenever another group of supporters is innocent enough to try the Mexican wave.
A while back, I wrote it was a pity Gareth Southgate had not been more critical about the events in Dortmund bearing in mind Joachim Löw had eviscerated a section of German troublemakers – “the lowest of the low”, being just one part of his long, impassioned diatribe – because of what happened in a game against the Czech Republic in Prague a few months later.
Southgate, decent bloke that he is, did acknowledge afterwards that he should have been stronger and, to give him his due, the incidents in Prague were another level up, including the traditional chants of “Sieg” (victory) being followed with an echoed “Heil”. Yet England’s manager did not utter a word on the subject after the game in Seville, even though the disturbances were serious enough for the FA to issue a statement calling it “unacceptable”.
Yes, a manager’s priority relates to what occurs on the pitch rather than the streets. But imagine the impact if, say, Southgate and his players had decided in advance that, whatever the result, they would not applaud the England fans at the final whistle. What a statement that would have been: a choreographed protest, a public disavowal and a clear, defiant message that it didn’t matter how loudly those fans had sung, how far they had travelled or how many argued it was unfair to be tarred with the idiot brush, too many had embarrassed their country.
Southgate could have apologised to the people of Seville. Harry Kane, the captain, could have repeated the message. Set the agenda, do something about it – or at least try. Most right-minded people, I would like to think, would have praised them to the high heavens.
It is fantasy, of course. There is no way the FA would be so bold or imaginative, especially when Southgate has talked about there no longer being a disconnect between the team and its supporters. But Germany’s players refused to clap their fans in Prague and it is not a coincidence, I suspect, that the people who follow Die Mannschaft tell me there have not been any similar issues on their subsequent away fixtures.
England, in contrast, have been in this position more times than the FA would probably care to remember and the fact Southgate is now so revered by the fans, with such a popular bunch of players, is precisely why this would have been the perfect time to do something – something ballsy, something truly meaningful – rather than relying on a copy‑and‑paste statement issued by the press office and filled with unattributed quotes.
As it is, the draw for the Euro 2020 qualifiers takes place in December and, inevitably, more countries will come to realise, with apologies to the decent majority, that England still have several orchards’ worth of bad apples among their number – and why the FA, in private, will acknowledge there is no more antisocial group of fans in Europe.
Some people, incidentally, prefer to describe them as “fans” with the inverted commas placed strategically to create the impression they are not proper fans. That, however, is not even close to being true. Many of these supporters think of football as a lifestyle, not a hobby, and shape their entire lives around where it takes them on a weekend. Of course they are proper fans – fanatics, in many cases. That, indeed, is part of the problem: their desire to follow England, and in some cases apply the kind of social skills you might associate with Vyvyan from The Young Ones, appears to be stronger than any desire on the FA’s part to do something about it.