There seldom seems to be a weekend go by which doesn’t end up revolving around something which has nothing to do with what has been occurring on the pitch, and this weekend has been no exception. For all of the events of Stamford Bridge yesterday afternoon, though, it seems likely that the majority of tomorrows newspaper headlines will be taken up with the antics of a proportion of the West Ham United supporters at White Hart Lane this afternoon for their match against Tottenham Hotspur. The match was marred by a series of songs from amongst the travelling support which seemed to be revelling in the stabbing of two Spurs supporters during the week, as well a somewhat more familiar and general antisemitism which has been following these matches around like a bad odour for some time now but felt all the more jarring this weekend considering that the events in Rome of last Wednesday night have been widely rumoured to have an antisemitic edge to them.
This, however, probably isn’t the best of times to be tarring all West Ham supporters with the same brush and consigning the club to the naughty corner to think about what it has done, no matter how convenient it may be for a press which doesn’t particularly like nuance or shades of grey. The truth of the matter is that a majority of West Ham United supporters are likely to be just as appalled as anybody else by the behaviour of some of those that happen to turn up at the same football matches as they do. West Ham United has, after all, a Jewish chairman in David Gold and the club has had its own share of Jewish players in the past, such as Eyal Berkovic and Yossi Benayoun. In addition to this, although Spurs supporters cling the most strongly to the identity of being Jewish, all London clubs have Jewish supporters to some extent. One can only wonder what it might have felt like to be one sitting in the away end at White Hart Lane this afternoon.
There will, of course, be those that seek to forgive any offence that they seek to cause under that catch-all buzzword of the damned, “banter”, but this is, of course, a straw man. Just as “free speech” isn’t the right to be as offensive as one wishes to be, neither can really win an argument over offensive behaviour by having an argument the sum total of which is something along the lines of, “Well, they shouldn’t get offended then, should they?” We could reasonably presume that if you or I, say, desecrated their families gravestones, they wouldn’t chalk it down to “banter” and move on. That’s the problem with assuming such a position. It makes an absolutist of you. Neither is it justifiable to engage in whataboutery with regard to songs that have been aimed at your support before. Not every Tottenham Hotspur supporter has been involved in that sort of behaviour, just as far from all West Ham United supporters were involved in this afternoons incident.
Perhaps we have to acknowledge that people for who this sort of behaviour is something approaching normal are amongst us. Football, after all, brings in people from the length of breadth of society as a whole. This acknowledgement, however, doesn’t have to mean acceptance and this is the reason why – quite asides from the moral aspects of doing so – it would be stupid and counter-productive for the press or the Football Association to tar all West Ham United supporters with the same brush as those amongst them that can’t keep their stupidity to themselves. English football needs the decent West Ham United supporters to stand their ground and make it clear that they will not tolerate such behaviour from the minority. It needs supporters of the club to make this stand, not “in favour of Spurs”, but in favour of the reputation of their club and in favour of behaviour that we do not accept as a society in a broader sense.
There is no moral equivalence, no counter-argument and no mitigation that will justify what happened at White Hart Lane this afternoon. And neither is it a press conspiracy to report the story when it is such a dismal follow-up to the events of last week in Rome. As football supporters, however, we all know that this sort of behaviour is always that of a minority and that the majority can only shake their heads when they hear it. At this point, when we consider that all ears will be upon them now at their next match whether they like it or not, it is perhaps up to West Ham United supporters to decide what sort of representation of themselves they wish to make to the outside world. If “winding up” opposition supporters is so important to that minority that they don’t care who else hears it, then the responsibility lays with the majority to make it clear to them how unwelcome such is behaviour is in the name of their club.
If it does continue, then so will the bad press and so will the criticism from all other quarters of the game until the Football Association or the police make their intervention, and it’s difficult to see what good that will do for West Ham United: the players, the club as an institution or its supporters. All this just to “wind up” the supporters of another club? Perhaps those involved should simply stick to supporting their own team instead. Because there seem to be some for whom there won’t even be the opportunity to do that any more if they receive a life ban from the club. To tar the majority of West Ham United supporters with the same brush, however, would be facile, over-simplistic and, more importantly than anything else, fundamentally wrong.
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