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Who Do We Think We Are?
DET Column
Wednesday, March 11 2009
Although football stirs the passions and often encourages tribal behaviour by fans, it’s worth considering just what the purchaser of a match or season ticket is entitled to do at the event, apart from watching the game.

It would seem that many conventions and expectations regarding acceptable public behaviour are being increasingly ignored or abused by football supporters. There may be less of the outright hooliganism that blighted the game a few years ago, but some of the antics seen and reported at games nowadays would result in the perpetrators being prosecuted and likely to end up with a criminal record, if they had occurred on a downtown street rather than inside a football stadium.  

Often, the response of players to abuse from fans will affect the situation, either positively or negatively, from a public order viewpoint. For example, a professional and mature attitude was displayed by Kris Commons to the verbal abuse and missiles that the Nottingham “faithful” saw fit to hurl at their former hero in the recent encounters with those at the wrong end of Brian Clough Way. He made no fuss, but just got on with producing two fine displays, one match-winning, against the red wooden people. Distractions and baiting only inspired him to deliver decisively for his team and their supporters. He probably converted a few of his Derby doubters, too.  

Contrast Commons’ behaviour to that of Chelsea’s Mr. Drogba, who saw fit to indiscriminately throw back an object into the massed Burnley ranks when one of their number was stupid enough to aim a missile at him during a recent cup tie. Why does a fabulously talented millionaire footballer like Drogba allow himself to be goaded into retaliation against an unknown and unseen miscreant?   

Players have a responsibility to themselves, their team mates, club and spectators when they pull on their club shirts and take part in the action. They must uphold the traditions and standards of the sport and their club, whilst seeking to contribute to his team’s efforts and entertain the paying public. At times, the law of the land is clearly broken by fans and players. Perhaps the most extreme player example is Eric Cantona’s infamous drop-kick attack on an abusive Crystal Palace fan.     

For a football fan, is it the “herd” mentality that takes hold, or an individual’s belief that he (or she) is less likely to be caught in a big crowd than when acting alone that leads a spectator to actively seek to injure or abuse a professional sportsman? Even in these days of CCTV, many Derby supporters have endured missile throwing and the raining down of unspecified and unpleasant liquids from home supporters at places like Molineux, St. Andrews and the City Ground. Stewards that do not act on legitimate complaints about such behaviour are actively exacerbating the situation and therefore condoning what amounts to assault. The same officials can, however, be very efficient (or petty) when they apply themselves to the task of imposing strict order amongst visiting fans.    

Sadly, ignorant and abusive behaviour by some individuals towards others even within the same group of football fans seems to be increasing lately. There is the issue (post-Hillsborough) of supporters deciding that they alone have the right to stand up during a match. This preference seems to demonstrate (only to themselves and their mates) their own “superior fan” status. For everyone else sitting down around them, just trying to watch the match, they spoil it as much as Mr. Attwell’s refereeing or Rio Ferdinand’s expert referee-baiting does. To go back to an earlier point, wasn’t Ferdinand a prominent figure in the publicity for the campaign for respect in football? Some players are likely to attract abuse by being hypocritical.

Perhaps, in pursuit of spectator enjoyment and improved match atmosphere, there is a place for approved safe standing sections at some, if not all, stadia in the top divisions - although some officials understandably want it to remain in the past.  Official Standing Areas would first have to be agreed within a club’s fan base, i.e. from fans talking sensibly to each other, before any club could implement the facility. The club has to operate in accordance with statutory regulations; a standing” area” can’t be imposed by errant loudmouths who simply contrive “selfish” or unsafe standing and thereby show little respect to fellow supporters by their actions.

At an away game last season, I was concerned to see an elderly couple being berated by two young Derby fans that had stood up throughout the first half of the game. They were in front of the couple and objected in a foul-mouthed manner to the couple’s request for them to sit down. Eventually, other fans had to mediate so that the couple could move to seats in front of the dancing duo.

But the act of attending a game doesn’t bestow upon any fan the right to do as they please, regardless of how it affects other spectators, officials or players. At any public event every person has a responsibility to respect the rights of others and should engage their grey matter to achieve this. Before one follows an impulse, it’s really a question of thinking “well, what would happen to me if I did this elsewhere?” The answer should be “nothing”.
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