This is from Issue 11 of The Football Pink fanzine which is available HERE

CHRIS SMITH tackles the thorny issue of how football pays tribute to the dead and raises the question, have we simply gone too far?

The number of tributes in and, by extension, around football has risen significantly in recent times. As football has expanded and taken on a more important, central role in society, paying and indeed displaying respect has developed a far greater significance within the game. Does this increase in respectful behaviour mirror wider society and is it genuine, or has football begun to manufacture and replicate sombre emotion, spoiling both the sentiment and spectacle? Promoting respect is a crucial tenet of any sport but the surge of tributes in football undoubtedly jars and requires inspection.

The daily Two Minute Pause initiated by Sir Harry Hands, mayor of Cape Town from 1912-13 and 1916-18, decreed one minute would be devoted to remembrance of those fallen at war, and one minute would honour those who had survived. This informed both Armistice Day and football custom, though football institutions chiefly adopted a one-minute silence to honour their deceased. Bugle cries of The Last Post (dusk) and Reveille (dawn), which interposed a soldier’s night vigil watching over the dead, were represented in stadia by two emotive blows of the referee’s whistle between which people would silently reflect.

My first experiences of this were the infrequent minute’s silences that coincided with even less frequent trips to Goodison Park in the 1990s. If Everton happened to be remembering a former player, the rarity of those occasions gave them unique resonance to a child already mesmerised by the surroundings. My only prior remembrance had involved putting down my pens and pencils at school and refraining from smirking for two minutes on Armistice Day, or daydreaming in church. 35,000 people stood silent at Goodison made a much more profound impression. In a very real sense, football helped educate me about paying respect to the dead.

Nowadays, tributes are much more common. My adolescence coincided with a tribute boom. When mourners applauded Princess Diana as she was carried out of Westminster Abbey in her coffin, a new form of public tribute was authenticated. Shortly after, terrorism ramped up the despair. The urge to pay tribute grew stronger. On September 11, 2001, a series of co-ordinated assaults on America led to the loss of 2,977 lives. A one-minute silence was subsequently observed. Three years later, 191 people were killed in Madrid via back-pack bombs placed on trains. A three-minute silence was held in their honour. In September 2004, on the third anniversary of 9/11, one minute was suddenly deemed unsuitable and four minutes were observed. An absurd trend of tribute-upgrading had begun.

Football followed suit. Minute’s silences, once given extraordinary power by their paucity, became so prevalent that a spin-off tribute – the minute’s applause – was spawned. This was in part a pragmatic answer to the depressing question posed by drunks, louts and braindeads who sought to puncture humble silence with coarse obscenity, but it remained subjective: Manchester United chose to commemorate George Best’s life with silence despite Manchester City being their opponents; alternatively, Everton fans overruled planned silence to applaud for Alan Ball. A pragmatic answer turned spiritual shift: some we mourn, some we applaud.

The experimental age of tributes

It’s deeply unpleasant for a memorial to be sullied by a moronic minority, but that doesn’t feel like a sufficient reason to abandon tradition. That has been the consequence. Since the dawning of the minute’s applause, it’s all been a bit freestyle; tributes have endured an experimental phase. The pre-arranged specific minute clap, the simultaneous but patchy waving of smart phones, and following the devastating attacks in Paris, a massive, symbolic hug between England and France as opponents interlocked in choreographed defiance; we once stood silently still, now we draw attention to ourselves.

Social media has exacerbated this impulse by involving everyone. With momentum highly influential, tributes, once the exclusive whim of authority, can now be readily disseminated by anyone. A single, evocative post can be shared immediately and repeatedly, and eventually, if sufficiently resonant, inserted into a football match. In such a way, Newcastle United fans were able to honour John Alder and Liam Sweeney, dedicated supporters killed in the MH17 air disaster, by applauding in the 17th minute of every game of the 2014/15 season. John and Liam lost their lives trying to watch Newcastle; their prolonged presence at St James’ after their death was certainly fitting.

There have been other reasons for minute’s applauses. After Swansea City fans transformed a planned minute’s silence into applause for Gary Speed, who heartbreakingly took his own life just hours before their game with Aston Villa, it was decided Speed’s former clubs would honour him similarly. The specific minute of the applause was denoted by his shirt number. For Everton’s match with Stoke, which I attended, this was the 10th minute. As a left-footer and fellow Evertonian, I had a real soft spot for Speed and felt fortunate to participate in the applause. However, it felt odd with the football naturally capturing attention, completely removed from the silent reverie of the classroom or the initial power of minute’s silences.

This was paying respect whilst barely paying attention. Half-contemplating a childhood hero’s suicide as Tony Hibbert walloped it upfield to Marouane Fellaini. Something exciting happened not long into the applause and the crowd went with it. The tribute was lost in the noise. That’s happened at Newcastle games too. And Aston Villa matches where fans paid respect to former player Stiliyan Petrov who was forced to retire through leukaemia. Eventually Petrov called an end to the practice claiming “we all have to move on”. Expression and participation naturally faded over time. The earnest tribute, like so many these days, had become habit.

My concern is that a well-meaning suggestion has been agreed and enacted to the point of becoming the norm. Somehow along the way, intention has been distorted. Tributes were once a moral obligation but now seem for many an active pursuit, as if some central aspect of football ought to constantly revolve around honouring the dead more regularly, as if the previous modes of condolence were unsatisfyingly insufficient. Just as rarity previously informed unique power, repetition desensitises, over time expending emotion to leave only the action.

Wilful distraction

England and France’s friendly, just four days after the Paris attacks, was a handy political coincidence. Here, football became a wilful distraction, albeit an exhaustively overplayed one. Roy Hodgson took on prime ministerial esteem and delivered the sort of sporting diplomacy Sepp Blatter kids himself about. As English and French players stood arm in arm, a simple, compelling argument against terrorism was presented: sport, unifying fun for the masses. The recreation of this tribute at all Premier League fixtures eight days after the event was strange and unnecessary. It was almost lazy: a may as well kind of gesture. It felt as if England was trying to prove something about itself rather than express sympathy to France.

Would Premier League clubs have honoured France’s victims in such a manner had England not done so first? Would England have done so had it not been for circumstance? Spontaneous tributes capture waves of popular emotion and serve a democratically expressive function, but they can undermine tradition, and undermine individual recipients of familiar methods. English football honoured victims of a French tragedy more than it did some its own heroes, Bobby Robson and Jimmy Hill for instance, acknowledged by former clubs with a minute’s applause and silence respectively. Is that right? Isn’t football overstating its role and overreaching here?

Furthermore, what about the tragedies and individuals overlooked. Surely, if we acknowledge French victims of terrorism twice, the 47 slain in Saudi Arabia figure somewhere on the unsavoury scale of tribute-worthiness? Surely the ongoing genocide in Syria warrants a mention? The repetition of the French victims’ tribute was like a country using its primary sport to make a political gesture, rather than individual organisations and people expressing their mutual care. Politicising sporting tributes ruins their purity. There is a point where paying respect unwittingly becomes disrespectful.

Respect is an overused word in football. Whether it’s hashtagged at the end of a blandly appreciative tweet, stitched on to a referee’s sleeve to connote a nominative officiating initiative, waved by children in flag form before matches, referenced in exaggerated terms during mind-numbing Handshake-gate discussions, respect is a term that permeates all forms of the game. Which it should, but it shouldn’t be rammed down our throats, which it is. It seems some of the meaning has been lost, and at that point tributes become tainted, bound in the clichéd language of football, at the whim of its ever more ridiculous culture.

Abandoning tradition renders the future uncertain. If the length and frequency of tributes continues to rise, what will a football match consist of in a decade? Back-to-back minute’s silences before kick-off? Multiple minutes, presumably mostly in the first-half given the shirt number association, allotted to tribute applause? Permanent black armbands? There has to be a limit. Without one, ritual will dissipate into routine and we become mere agents of social custom, rather than the sentient, compassionate people intended. Promoting respect should always be an aspirational virtue of football, but it should be promoted in genuine form, not regurgitated impulsively.

Spiritual deficit

Why does an increasingly secular society spend more time engaging in public displays of reflection? Do minute silences, or indeed applauses, fill the void of prayer? We remember those who have made sacrifices and died in our midst, and endeavour to keep faith in the institution that brought them strength and relief. We bow our heads or raise our voices communally. These are religious experiences filtered through the normalising lens of football, compensating for a spiritual deficit created when society began to turn away from religion. Whereas prayer offered a precise context for meditation, we’re now free to speculate.

Our own methods have proved muddled and artificial. Social media’s all-consuming consciousness has distorted the mourning process, congealing individual reactions into one legitimised mass. We are confused, grasping for meaning in impromptu acts of forced commemoration. Communal behaviour has replaced personal reflection. We are not always giving these great lives, wonderful people and awful sets of circumstances their due thought, but instead, we occasional go through the motions publically for appearance’s sake. With no spiritual framework as pervasive as the universality of silence, tributes have become diluted. Tradition has degenerated into trend.

Of course this is a subjective and sensitive issue. There is no correct number of minute’s silences, there are no moral guidelines on how to honour someone’s life. It’s one thing to say there should be fewer tributes in football, quite another to address specific individuals or incidents and deem them unworthy of the stadium honour. There are undoubtedly special people and tragic moments that go unobserved in football’s congregation, but the current path seems troubling. It’s time for us to start reining our tributes in a bit.

It seems we’ve moved beyond the minute’s silence era. Applause and plenty else is now accepted practice. And that’s not a wholly bad thing. Society and indeed football moves on. You wouldn’t want a world of football in which the past was preserved, particularly from England’s perspective. But I suppose the great hope would be for the traditional modes of reflection and the mood of the moment to find a more suitable, meaningful solution before the sentiment is lost entirely, and football becomes little more than a vehicle for falsified emotion.

One of my last visits to Goodison was the end of year encounter against Stoke City. Before the game, all those associated with the club who had passed away in 2015, which included former player, manager and hero, Howard Kendall and successful former chairman Sir Philip Carter, along with dozens of supporters, were honoured with a minute’s applause. Names and images passed across the screens, focusing naturally on Kendall and Carter. There was a blue and white paper mosaic in the Park End. It was nice, it felt like a special, fitting way to honour Evertonians, a mix of old and new expressions. If we must move away from tradition, we must make these moments more special, not more frequent.

CHRIS SMITH – @cdsmith789