Some years ago, when Millwall played West Ham United, the Millwall fans sang the following song (to the tune of ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’, if you want to hum along): ‘Oh east London, is like Bengal. Oh east London is like Bengal. It’s like the back streets of Delhi. Oh east -London is like Bengal.’ They haven’t sung it for two or three years, but only because Millwall haven’t played West Ham. I mean, I don’t think that Millwall’s supporters have gradually thought better of it and decided that the ditty was perhaps racist and demeaning, or are worried about the relative geography of Delhi and Bengal.
If we (Millwall are my team) played West Ham tomorrow, I think we’d still sing it. I’ve watched one or two West Ham fans nodding their heads sadly when the song gets an airing, and there’s at least one Hammer writing for this publication who would ruefully concur. West Ham’s fans respond, incidentally, by suggesting that Millwall supporters are members of the travelling community — which they do without, to my mind, the requisite respect for that much-maligned ethnic minority. But then we make the same sort of references whenever Millwall play Gillingham: ‘You can’t read, you can’t write, you wear gold and Nikes. You are all from Gillingham and you are fucking pikeys.’ Or, more briefly: ‘You can shove your lucky heather up your arse.’ It is, I would accept, a fairly coarse demotic and not mindful of the very real hurt it might cause. Or perhaps very mindful of that hurt, and revelling in it.
Why do football supporters sing these sorts of songs? The writer David -Goodhart might be able to provide an answer. He divides the country between ‘somewhere people’ and ‘anywhere people’. There are those who feel a profound allegiance to their hometown, who are rooted there almost to the degree that it defines them, and those who feel no sort of allegiance, who have escaped the bonds through aspiration, wealth, advanced education or simply a more cosmopolitan mindset. Football supporters are — or were — resolutely in the former group. The point of the Saturday football game is to share with your friends a pride in the area in which you grew up and to which you still belong and which your football team represents, no matter how useless they might be. And sure, to exhibit a brief and laconic loathing of the area from which your opponents hail. Coterminous with that state of mind is a sense of community, of belonging, of mutuality and permanence.
Goodhart does not say much about football, but I think his analysis is nonetheless correct. It is the big division in our country — the somewheres versus the anywheres. I noticed it at a school reunion I attended near Middlesbrough after the Brexit vote. Almost all of those who had remained on Teesside voted leave. Almost all of those who had left voted remain. And this was mediated only slightly by education and affluence.
The Premier League kicks off this weekend and the sorts of chants I mentioned will not be heard, because they have become somehow illegal. Outlawed because they are perceived to be racist or homophobic or simply vile — because football no longer is what football was, and the ‘somewheres’ do not really have a stake in it any more. If you were an Arsenal fan and turned up to Wembley for the Charity Shield season-opener against Chelsea you may well have paid £120 for your ticket and sat alongside Bob, an Arsenal fan from Doncaster, and Sven, a Gooner from Malmo. And you will have watched your team — foreigners, all of them, except for one lad from Manchester and another from Stalybridge — exhorted onwards by the French manager. Who is the employee of an American owner. I -suppose you could claim that Arsenal still represented your area because the ground is near Finsbury Park. But it is only there by chance; if a more lucrative deal hove into view -further afield, your club would move before you could say ‘Woolwich’.
In which case, what is it, exactly, that you are supporting? For many, it is the allure of vicarious success — you support Arsenal because they are ‘good’. Or because you think you ought to ally yourself to some team and Arsenal are quite famous, so they’ll do. Or because you like to watch ‘attractive football’, which Arsenal do indeed exhibit. (But if it’s that, then surely you would start cheering for the opposition if they started to play prettier football than your side?) I don’t mean to pick on Arsenal — exactly the same is true if you’re a Chelsea fan: Russian owner, Italian manager, one lonely Englishman on the pitch last week (and he was from Dronfield, nearly 200 miles from west London). Or a fan of any of the big clubs, from Manchester United via Liverpool all the way down to Spurs. And in this way the visceral and habitual allegiance to a team has been winnowed away, so that top-level football today is really only for the ‘anywheres’.
And more than that, the ‘somewheres’ are being told to get lost from the stands: they are not wanted any more. They carry with them baggage that is despised by not only our liberal elite, who wish us all to be eternally transient and to possess no allegiance to any town, city, county or nation, but also by big money, which thinks exactly the same thing for financial rather than ideological reasons. And so gradually the country becomes an homogenous mass: the regions merge imperceptibly, the accents disappear, our sense of place is dislocated. This has been happening for a while, of course — -modern football simply accelerates the process.
Still, enjoy the new season. Manchester City to win the league, I would reckon, with not a Mancunian involved in them doing so.
The argument continues online.