‘Well one ex-follower certainly showed their true colours tonight. You f***ing Judas c**t.’
This Twitter comment, made on 18th March 2021, was directed at me.
For me, this article is a cathartic sense-making exercise that, I hope, offers some useful thoughts on the place of loyalty and political values in football.
The situation is this. I have just resigned my role as the match programme editor at my local non-league club. I will probably not be returning to support them. Why would I do this? It’s complicated.
After giving up on my Premier League club in 1992, and years of groundhopping, I started following my local non-league club in 2015. It ticked all of the boxes: It was a fan-run club. It had made a statement against corporate greed in football. And, it was re-creating a space where working-class people could congregate to watch football again.
In fact, it was a vehicle for a new kind of democratic and egalitarian politics. At least, this is the view of one of the founding members, who recently told me that the club started with a strong sense of where it stood politically: ‘Of course, we had a strong political stance, yes. There was a charter from the first programme onwards on what we stood for.’
One of these values was to, ‘Contribute to social inclusion and reinforce collective identities, improve self-esteem and inspire.’ As a club that defined itself by its affordability, this essentially meant creating a football club for working-class fans that were being excluded from the glitzy new grounds of the Premier League.
However, the club also had another value which was to, ‘Reach as many people as possible, especially minorities, excluded and under-represented groups.’ This demanded more of the club. It had to extend itself beyond its traditional working-class fan base by providing a safe and welcoming environment for everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, gender, gender identity, religion or creed.
Actions speak louder than words
When I arrived, I could see the club was a space of working-class participation. However, there was much to be done if it was to realise its ambitions to be the inclusive space it said it wanted to be. So, I established a refugee fan project at the club in 2017.
It wasn’t plain sailing. The gateman, a club sponsor, refused to operate the gate to allow refugees and people seeking asylum into the ground.
Let’s call him, Jim.
The chairman told Jim that the refugee project was going ahead, whether he liked it or not. Jim responded by resigning as gateman. He also tweeted his regret that his sponsorship money had already reached the club that season, whilst threatening to withdraw future financial support.
This drew my attention to his Twitter account, which a fellow fan had described as a ‘swamp of racism’. Some might argue he’s entitled to his views. However, his Twitter biography attached him to the club, which he also sponsored. For a club that proclaimed support for minorities, it made for an awkward association.
I raised this with members of the board, who broadly share my politics. They listened and were sympathetic. They also tried to reassure me. I was told that we were a socialist club and that, ‘Nobody likes him.’
It didn’t address my issue.
Suffice it to say, the problem was not confined to Jim. The problem was that he had been allowed to become part of the fabric of the club. By accepting his sponsorship for ‘pragmatic reasons’ (money is always tight in non-league), the club was legitimising his racist presence. Moreover, a significant number of ‘progressive’ members in the wider fanbase ‘hung around’ with him and dismissed my concerns about his racism. Others told me to just ignore it.
For me, this was tantamount to appeasement of something we claimed to stand against. My unease about it was now known.
The tension dissipated when I disappeared the following season to concentrate on setting up a refugee football club with a local church minister. However, I returned the season after as match programme editor, at the very moment that the Black Lives Matter protests were gathering momentum. It felt like a defining moment for football and our club. I said as much in my inaugural tweet as programme editor:
‘Looking forward to editing @AFCLiverpool programme next season. Will be looking at lots of issues within the club ethic of inclusion & collective identity such as #RefugeesWelcome #RainbowLaces #BlackLivesMatter #KickItOut’
Predictably, it did not go unresponded:
‘Do not turn the football club or its programme into a political vehicle. That list has no place in the matchday programme of a non-league football club. Keep it to football.’
Nailing our colours to the mast
The programme started well with positive feedback from the ‘sound’ fans within the club, of which there are several. It also invited a boycott from my adversary and a few critical comments from his associates.
I had been told numerous times that the club did its socialist politics with a small ‘p’ and that anything else was off-putting to fans. The club said it was happy for me to write about ‘refugees welcome’, Black Lives Matter and Kick It Out because they were mainstream football issues.
However, this highlighted a contradiction that lay at the heart of the club: the club seemed to believe in these things but it was unwilling to put its beliefs into practice.
This became apparent when my longstanding frustration with the club forced me into further action.
With the club continuing to take Jim’s patronage, and turning a blind eye to racism in its fan base, I took matters into my own hands. I gathered a handful of fans together into a new fan group which, I announced on Twitter, would, ‘promote our club values #NoRacism #NoHomophobia #NoSexism #RefugeesWelcome #BlackLivesMatter #FootballWithValues.’
Tweeted questions were immediately raised about this intrusion of ‘politics’ into the football club. This tweet was endorsed by a board member who, having ‘quietly’ encouraged my programme writing, was now indicating that ‘public’ support would not be forthcoming if push came to shove on the issues I was pushing.
It was undermining.
It also told a story of a club that was so afraid of itself that it had decided to run away from what it thought it was and what it wanted to be.
As for me, I was becoming tired of being told to ‘wait and see’ and that ‘when we’ve got enough money, we’ll tell him to f*** off.’ This was tantamount to saying that we will provide a space for racism now, but don’t worry, it won’t be forever. I decided that I could no longer live with the club’s position. So, I stepped down.
If you know your history
It transpires that I’m not the only one to walk. One fan that followed the club at its inception recalls that, ‘I tried too when I encountered homophobic insults towards opposition players. Board members publicly opposed me on the club forum and I was subject to constant ongoing abuse from a section of the fanbase.’ Others have left too.
I have previously considered the exit door myself, but ‘loyalty’ to the club and some of the people there kept me in place. On resigning the programme editorship, however, I told board members that, ‘I now personally need to support a club with explicit political commitments and that tells fascists they’re not welcome.’ I said as much on Twitter too.
I did not receive a reply from the board. However, I have received messages on Twitter from some of the far-right contingent within the club, calling me a ‘crank’ and a ‘f***ing Judas c**t.’
Loyal to what?
This all raises an interesting point about loyalty: To what? Football clubs are a product of their urban placement. As products of those same places, we are supposed to give our undying ‘loyalty’ to our local club regardless – through ‘thick and thin’ and ‘til I die’.
This is regardless of the human rights record of club owners, which we are obliged to overlook. Some fans even celebrate human rights abusers on their banners in the name of place loyalty: ‘Manchester Thanks You, Sheikh Mansour’.
But that’s not how things work for some of us. I recently posed the question of why UK-based football fans support the German club, St. Pauli, on a Facebook group. I received an overwhelming response from fans that had fallen out of love with their own clubs and were now following St. Pauli because it connected with their politics and values. Here is a West Ham fan:
‘A large amount of the West Ham fanbase are right-wing, so I became disillusioned. I remember reading about a ‘punk’ football club a few years back, which brought me to St Pauli. I’m now fully supporting the club on the pitch and supporting their stance as well as the fans stance too. It’s like a divorce. There’s still some lingering feelings for West Ham there, but my love for my new club is strong and this is where I am now.’
A West Brom fan wrote:
‘As soon as we first went to St. Pauli, we just knew. It was the values and views of the fans. We were both season ticket holders at West Brom for 30 plus years, but fell out of love with the whole charade of modern top-flight football in the UK back in 2009. We have not set foot inside the Hawthorns since.’
And this from an Oxford United fan:
‘Oxford have been through the mill as far as owners go, so to see St. Pauli is an anathema to everything corporate. There is an idealist spirit in the ethos. I’m hooked now.’
My question elicited ninety-nine replies. These replies highlighted how a combination of commercialisation and the growth of right-wing hate politics had broken bonds of loyalty between many fans and their clubs. These football fans were searching for a football club that fitted in with their values rather than simply where they were from, as this Nottingham Forest fan emphasises: ‘The anti-fascist message got me watching St. Pauli and it went from there.’
Don’t mention politics
Plenty of football clubs in the UK have appealed to the sense of idealism that St. Pauli fans talk about. My own club is one of them. Other clubs too. It was all going to be so different, wasn’t it?
But it hasn’t turned out quite like that.
The recent fallings-out at FC United of Manchester, over the club ‘selling out’ its politics, is probably the best-known example. However, at my club, you cannot even talk about politics! I have been told that it puts people off because they come to watch football.
I have also been given the familiar refrain that, ‘politics has nothing to do with football.’ This seems like a strange claim to make for a club that was built on left-wing politics.
But it has serious consequences.
It imposes a political silence that I found repressive. It made me feel that I was ‘too political’, ‘too extreme’ and that my views were a potential problem for the club. This made me feel insecure at the club, as well as uneasy.
Disappointingly, I started to police myself so that I did not alienate the people that ran the club, who I was hoping I could work with to tackle the issues.
This meant that I kept my silence when sexist jokes were made in the stands, using derogatory language such as ‘bitch’ and ‘c**t’. In a masculine and misogynistic environment, I knew it would be difficult to challenge the language and that, like the fan cited earlier, I would probably not receive backing.
In the light of the protest movement and discussion that has taken place in the aftermath of Sarah Everard’s murder, I now feel ashamed that I was not brave enough to stand up to it. I have not been a good ally to women.
Instead of resisting sexism, I opted out. A few months ago, I left a club WhatsApp group that was ostensibly for exchanging ticket information, yet had become a forum for sharing sexist jokes and imagery.
The privilege to overlook
Of course, this all makes politics sound like the serious business it is. No wonder some people argue that it has no place in football.
Yet, the idea that politics and football do not go together is a tactic that the far-right uses to evade scrutiny. It is based on a fabricated dichotomy between leisure (football) and serious (politics), which sustains the claim that politics must be kept at bay.
This is nonsense.
Several ‘alternative’ football clubs decorate their terraces with banners that proclaim their political commitments: Whitehawk FC, Clapton FC, Dulwich Hamlet FC, Lewes FC and, of course, FC United of Manchester. Yet, it doesn’t distract from the fun of the match. In the words of one fan of these clubs, ‘We just have a laugh and enjoy the football.’
These clubs recognise that politics does not happen every five years or by occasionally retweeting public figures on the progressive left. It happens on the canvas of the everyday life of the club. Moreover, it has to happen this way.
This is why.
There is an uncomfortable closeness between the silent left at my club and those that refer to Black Lives Matter as ‘Burn Loot Murder’: They both possess and exhibit the ‘white privilege’ that fans on the far-right complain is the latest stick to beat and ‘repress’ white people with. According to one fan in my club, ‘You have to apologise for being white now’.
This is for them.
Privilege means that you can only overlook and accommodate racism, sexism and homophobia if you are a white heterosexual male that is not affected by them. If you are affected by them, it’s not so easy. Life can be a catalogue of discrimination, fear, intimidation, abuse and even violence.
Here is an example of the impact it can have.
My wife studied the racial geography of Liverpool as a City of Culture in 2008. She found that young black people living in Toxteth felt unsafe moving outside of their ‘own space’. So, they didn’t.
Since then, the problem of racism has got worse.
This means that we cannot presume that the ‘minorities’ my club says it wants to encourage will magically turn up at the gate. They won’t. A strong message needs to go out that they are welcome and that fascism, racism, homophobia and sexism are not tolerated. This needs to be written on flags and banners and inscribed into the everyday practices of the club. That means being Political – with a capital P.
These forms of discrimination have not only been tolerated at my club, but I have been undermined for being too ‘Political’ in seeking to tackle them.
This has been the straw that has broken the camel’s back.
I have already let women down by not aligning enough with them against sexism. I cannot make the same mistake twice.
Rebuilding our football utopia
When fan-led clubs were established, we all had Utopian ideas about how different they would be. This story actually shows that those ideas are dormant rather than dead.
In this article, I have been writing about people that still believe in the values that led to the formation of their clubs. They don’t like racists any more than I do. But we have all been compromising ourselves.
Accepting the idea that politics has no place in football is allowing the far-right to thrive and influence our clubs, whilst evading scrutiny.
Reassuring voices that appeal for patience, until the problem somehow disappears, don’t cut it either. They are a symptom of white male privilege that creates a space for racism and sexism to flourish in the here and now. This is where they do their damage, so this is where they need to be challenged.
We are awash with contradictions. We say we believe in something, but it seems we are not prepared to see it through. Unfortunately, football Utopia doesn’t come that easily. It won’t be built on fine words. It has to be built on the canvas of the everyday lives of our football clubs.