The message was brief and the writer got straight to the point. ‘I’d just like you to know that you are a fucken cocksucker,’ it read, ‘and that your article on Leeds supporters was a load of absolute fucken bullshit. You’re a stupid fucken predjudice [sic] half-wit.’ After more of the same (yawn) it was signed ‘Angry and dangerous’.
If you were looking for the authentic voice of the football supporter, at the start of another season, Mr Angry would make a fair representative. No matter what the well-scrubbed ‘experts’ tell you on the telly, no matter how seductive are the endless puffs on Radio Five Live, the game relies for much of its support on the kind of illiterate who sent that email.
He was not alone. Another message read: ‘What a load of bollocks you sad t**t. We are Leeds and we’re proud of it.’ There were dozens of others, written with similar command of the language, as well as some that made reasonable points. Such is football’s capacity for finding all that is most base and vile in people, and bringing it to the surface.
Pampered as they are, the players do not help. Roy Keane, the Manchester United captain, has just published an autobiography in which he revealed that he set out deliberately to hurt an opponent, Alf-Inge Haaland, in order to avenge an insult that Haaland had thrown at him three years earlier. Dennis Wise was sent home by his club, Leicester City, after breaking a team-mate’s cheekbone on a pre-season tour. When Leicester were instructed to take him back (they are disputing the decision), Gordon Taylor, chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association, said that Wise had shown ‘contrition’ for his assault. How terribly kind of him.
Look everywhere, and you will find similar examples of moral turpitude. Football lives by its own laws, and so it is essentially lawless. Is it any wonder, in this upside-down world, that too many supporters lack a sense of proportion? Individually they may see sense and reason. Put them in a ground with thousands of fellow fans (fanatics, more like) and the world becomes a different place.
The angry brigade who wrote to me were responding to a piece I had written in the Daily Mail on the first match of the season, between Leeds United and Manchester City. I was less than kind to the supporters, and I was less than kind to football in general. If you do that, then you will receive abusive letters. As a general rule, the further north you go, the more abusive they are.
Even those fans who favoured reasonable language could not see that, to the outsider, football looks and sounds horrible. ‘No Leeds fan likes Manchester United,’ wrote one. ‘In fact we all hate them. This is part and parcel of what happens in football today.’ Hatred, in other words, is acceptable. Another email confirmed that dismal small-town view: ‘Your failure to understand the hatred of traditional rivals illustrates that you understand little or nothing about football.’
Ah, but I do. Far from being some interloper with only the foggiest idea of ‘footer’, I watched my first match at the age of five and, in the past 22 years, I have covered games at more than 90 Football League grounds. My maternal grandfather attended the famous ‘White Horse’ Cup final in 1923, the first at Wembley, and Donny Davies, who wrote for the Guardian as ‘Old International’ and is generally considered to be the finest of writers on the game, was the godfather of my brother’s godfather. If that sounds tangential, it may convey the sense that association football was something I absorbed naturally in my youth.
Nor am I ignorant of the violence that scarred the landscape of football in the Seventies and Eighties, when the situation was, in some ways, even worse. Most clubs were followed by gangs of violent young men, and there were riots inside grounds and sometimes on the pitch. When Bobby (now Sir Bobby) Robson, as decent a man as English football has ever produced, urged the police to ‘turn flame-throwers on the bastards’ after his Ipswich side had been caught up in a riot at Millwall in 1978, more than a few observers agreed with him.
John Arlott, the great cricket broadcaster – and a man of many other accomplishments – once told me, ‘There are good people in football, but they’re outnumbered 200 to one.’ Arlott loved football but he gave up reporting it in the late Sixties, complaining that the game had become ‘seedy’. If it was seedy then, when television money, rapacious agents and rootless players had yet to corrupt it, what words would he find now?
Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence that has mounted over three decades, not everybody fully understands the foulness of football. Earlier this year, in conversation with the editor of a national newspaper, I was startled to hear him say that rugby supporters were better behaved only because ‘they are middle class’. It was silly, he indicated, to expect anything so old-fashioned as decent conduct from downtrodden, uneducated football supporters.
Leaving aside the fact that followers of rugby league, which is a genuinely working-class sport, behave themselves impeccably, this chap overlooked one salient point. The people who watch football are no longer ‘working class’. Some are, yes. But hundreds of thousands of supporters spend thousands of pounds each season following their team at home and away, far more than members of the ‘middle classes’ spend, say, on going to the opera. This is a class problem, all right, but not in the way that the liberal editor imagined.
As so often, the most honest witness on this subject is Anthony Daniels. After watching England play a World Cup qualifier in Rome five years ago, he wrote an account of his experience that was so vivid it should be essential reading for all politicians. What astonished him most was the social composition of the supporters. These were not proletarians but well-paid professionals affecting to be working-class. They swore loudly and behaved in an obnoxious way because that is how they thought working-class folk behaved. Furthermore, when the Italian police took a dim view of their antics and applied their preferred methods of crowd control, these spectators were appalled. They felt, wrote Daniels, that they had ‘an inalienable right’ to behave badly, irrespective of the offence they caused. This downwardly mobile urge is one of the distinguishing features of modern English life.
It used to be so different. David Frost, bringing to mind a game in the Sixties at Tottenham, when Fulham were playing there, sat next to a man who lamented, ‘Oh, luckless Haynes!’ when John of that ilk hit the post with a shot. How innocent that world seems! But it’s gone, apparently for ever. The fans now enjoy wallowing in the sewer, and then boasting about the stink they make. It’s a great game, but I have learnt the truth of what Arlott told me that night in Alderney over a bottle from his famous cellar. Too many of the people who play it, and watch it, are seedy, and I want no more of it.