It is a truth universally acknowledged that football matches – and in particular local derbies – can bring out the worst in people. Where, however, is the line in the sand? What is the definition of what acceptable behaviour inside a football ground? This week, we have seen an example of a national newspaper attempting to draw that line, and they ended up looking a little “odd” as a result themselves. This story began on Monday with a humourous photograph collection in The Guardian which appeared on the site on Sunday evening. It was, as many of these pictorial collections are, brilliant, eighteen photographs documenting the hustle and bustle of Bramall Lane before, during and after the weekend’s derby match between Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday.
A couple of the photographs drew the attention and one in particular, a photograph of two female Sheffield United supporters, one of whom was flicking a V-sign, presumably in the direction of Sheffield Wednesday supporters and/or players. It was a humourous picture, a vignette of the – usually temporary – rage that people submit themselves to for the duration of a football match. The photograph made its way around various social media sites and websites on Sunday night and, that, we might have thought, would be that. This, we may have cause to ponder, is what football supporters do on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Many of us would, if we paused to consider it for a moment, not necessarily be proud of the way that we behave in the safe anonymity of a large crowd, but this, in comparison of what some seem capable of before, during or after matches, was tame stuff, wasn’t it?
Not if you’re a football writer for The Sun, it wasn’t, and on on Tuesday that newspaper, which has long been a barometer of good taste when it feels like it, wrote a piece which began from the jumping-off point of Sheffield having been “shamed buy finger yobs”, before going on to add that “Two fans, who are old enough to know better, showed the ugly side of the beautiful game by making obscene hand gestures during the Steel City clash which ended 2-2 at Bramall Lane.” Why, however should this picture have been selected as an example it the decline and fall of western civilisation? We are, by now, used to the “hell in a handcart” school of thought that is the common currency of many columnists in some corners of the press, but why this picture and why now?
The Sun masks its moralising behind a fig leaf of respect, making particular reference to abuse which has been thrown at players in recent years. The photograph referred to, however, looks like little more than a bit of inter-club rivalry, of a sort that has been a part of the staple diet of the game for decades. Anybody that has ever attended a match will already be fully aware of the fact that this sort of cartoon mutual disrespect goes on all the time, and that it is a part and parcel of the culture of the game. It is sometimes unedifying, for sure, but the end of the world it isn’t, and even the overwhelming majority of those that take part in it are plenty capable of seeing and understanding the line in the sand that is drawn before racist or homophobic abuse (although the eradication of those remains a work in progress) and stopping well before it.
Could it be that one of the driving factors behind this odd bout of moral outrage was that the protagonists photographed were women, and that one of them was middle-aged? After all, we know fully well that the tabloid press takes its moral barometer very much to either extreme, with little room for a middle ground. Those photographed were breaking one stereotype of how women are, in some quarters, expected to behave, and this includes how women are expected to behave at football matches. It is difficult to believe that a similar level of opprobium would have been forthcoming had the person photographed been male.
As for the question of why, well, it is tempting to reach the conclusion that such an editorial could have been written to deflect attention from the staging that The Sun got in the house of commons during the recent Hillsborough debate there. The newspapers treatment of that story, first printed over twenty years ago, has been another stain on its integrity over the last two decades. This is, of course, all speculation. That such a story should appear at that precise moment, however, has certainly caused some to have raised their eyebrows.
Whatever the whys and wherefores of this particular story, football supporters have work to do in order to challenge the genuine issues that face our behaviour at times. There are still too many outbreaks of trouble at matches, and there is too much racism and homophobia. This much we know. To assume that there is any sort of decline in standards from a single photograph – of behaviour which is a old as the game itself – in a set from a local derby, however, can only lead us to the conclusion that The Sun should, perhaps, be targetting its moral crusades at more worthy targets. We can but hope.
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