BY PAUL BREEN

Charlton Athletic fans are the latest to join up with a growing trend to make the scarf a vital part of public protest.

Once upon a time, the football scarf was synonymous with club colours, the team name, and affirmations of loyal support. Originally designed to keep fans warm on open terraces in the winter, a set of plain stripes characterised the earliest incarnations of the football scarf in the days of wooden rattles and cloth caps.

However, just like the game itself, the team scarf has evolved down through the years to include names, crests, combinations of colour, and even incorporation of the opposing team’s symbols as well.

Many of these scarves are collectors’ items, and a memento of special moments in the history of a club such as trips to Wembley, games on the continent, friendlies, testimonials, and so on.

Recently though, the scarf has come to represent something else. It has become a symbol of protest, both inside and outside of football grounds. The most visible expression of this in recent times has been the green and gold scarf campaign conceptualised by the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust. Starting with a few hundred scarves on display in the 2009/10 season, this protest grew rapidly into one that attracted over 100,000 members to the Supporters’ Trust. Based on a simple message of regime change, this protest called for a return to the original values of the club that was first formed under the name of Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Football Club in 1878.

Green and gold were the colours worn by the original Newton Heath, and thus adopted by today’s Manchester United supporters as a way of staying faithful to their club while at the same time putting distance between themselves and the American owners.

Seeing the success of this campaign in capturing public attention and uniting the fan base, some have followed suit, while others emerged at around the same time.

Arsenal’s Black Scarf Movement falls somewhere between the two camps, born out of discussions in the late 2000s about the rising price of match tickets and the effect of that on ordinary fans. Like the United protest, this has gathered momentum and perhaps even had more success in being noticed by the club’s owners who announced a price freeze on tickets for the present season. Significantly too, the Arsenal protest has taken the innovative step of linking up with supporters of other clubs, to unite football fans as a whole behind this rallying call to make the game more affordable. Towards the end of last season they merged with Liverpool’s Spirit of Shankly and Spion Kop’s 1906 supporters’ groups for a shared protest in London, where fans stayed outside The Emirates for the first ten minutes of the game to bring attention to ticket prices not just for home supporters, but for the away fans as well.

Such visible protests, short as they are, generate and express a sense of discontent on the terraces and represent a real threat to the business side of football. That, of course, is what they intend. Football, as an industry, has been slow to treat its customers with the respect they have earned through their loyalty and their cash. A new generation of club owners, more interested in profit than people, have left many supporters feeling alienated, like second-class citizens in the stadia they see as their very own territory.

Charlton Athletic, on the other side of the Thames to Arsenal, is the latest club where discontent is giving rise to a scarf protest. Amongst Charlton’s support, there is a growing sense of distance between their Belgian millionaire owner Roland Duchâtelet, and the fan base. Though Duchâtelet has made considerable investment in the club and is not as universally disliked as the Glazers at Manchester United, for example, there is a sense that he makes no effort to communicate his ambitions to the supporters. Indeed, rightly or wrongly, there is also a sense that the club has become no more than a plaything in a strange social experiment of establishing a shared network of football teams across Europe.

Tired of this, fans are now demanding that Duchâtelet spells out his intentions for the future. These demands are part of the Spell It Out in Black & White campaign, and relate to the following areas:

(a)        Clarity regarding the club’s business plan

(b)        The need for meaningful dialogue with supporters

(c)        Respect for fans through timely response to communication

(d)      The establishment of a working group to attract 20,000 fans to The Valley in order to secure the club’s financial future.

Until such times as the owner has agreed to spell out the answers as plainly, honestly, and directly as possible, a group of fans has decided to broadcast their message in very basic black and white. Like Manchester United’s green and gold scarf protest, these colours are significant in the history of Charlton Athletic. When the club won its only FA Cup in April 1947, they wore white shirts and black shorts.

This campaign though, like those of Manchester United and Arsenal, is not driven by some idealistic nostalgia for the past. Just like those behind the green and gold, or black scarf protests, there is awareness amongst Charlton supporters that a pragmatic stance has to be taken. Roland Duchâtelet owns the club, just as many others are now in the hands of business people, foreign or British, who have little or no past connection to their new toys. Not everyone at Charlton is happy with that situation, but it’s the reality that supporters have to work with, the foundation on which to base negotiation and ambitions for the future, before it is too late, and disaffected supporters have drifted off in other directions.

As those in groups such as The Black Scarf Movement and The Spirit of Shankly have pointed out, there is a danger that present day football is at risk of losing a whole generation of possible supporters by alienating them from the game. Unlike at Arsenal, the problem at Charlton isn’t an economic one. Games at The Valley are amongst the most affordable in London, and the whole of the championship, far more reasonable than many competitors.

The problem is one of alienation, and fans feeling voiceless, hence the use of a scarf to make their protest visible on the terraces. Maybe a message in black and white is not as striking as one in green and gold, but it’s powerful all the same. Like the advertising slogan for a certain paint company, it does exactly what it says on the tin and it draws attention to a part of south-east London that back in the 80s and 90s was famed for its Back to the Valley campaign. This new protest, starting small and hoping to grow along the way, is going to be there in black and white, in front of the TV cameras, and on the terraces, in the weeks ahead.

Already the very threat of it has produced the promise of more dialogue, which is a good start for those behind the campaign, but such promises have been forthcoming before and then abandoned. Maybe this time around, the voice of protest will have an impact. Another test, another example, of the power of the scarf.

PAUL BREEN is the author of The Charlton Men available in paperback, and also on Amazon Kindle at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Charlton-Men-Paul-Breen-ebook/dp/B00G8OBOKW/

FOLLOW PAUL ON TWITTER @CharltonMen

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