Last night’s matches in the Football League were a carnival of goals, drama and excitement but (with the possible exception of Leeds United’s extraordinary implosion against Preston North End) the majority of us real event of the evening came at London Road, where the end of the match between Peterborough United and Notts County was “marred” by a massive fight between the players and staff of the two teams. The BBC took the time to edit down the events at the end of the match and even took the time to synchronise the commentary from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire for the occasion (the video is, for UK viewers, is available here, whilst those of you stopping by from elsewhere in the world can see some shaky cameraphone footage of it here).
There are few other events that can occur during a football match that bring about more clichés in the media than a fight on the pitch. The brawls are always “mass” (which, considering that a brawl is dictionary defined as “a noisy quarrel or fight”, is hardly surprising, and they always “mar” the proceedings. Sometimes it will be described (usually as part of the post-match analysis by a former player) as “handbags (at dawn)”. No phrase that hasn’t been turned over a million times before will be deemed too lazy to file to demonstrate the disapproval of the writer and no amount of “shame” will be too great on those that were involved in these “disgraceful scenes”.
Yet the truth of the matter is that, for many of us, the fight on the pitch is a rare treat. We see goals every week, either in person or on the television. In recent years, as they have become more commonplace, even red cards have lost some of the rarity value that they used to hold. The fight on the pitch, however, the massive, indignified fight between a big group of silly young men in brightly coloured shirts and shorts with a heightened feeling of slight, retains its once-in-a-season excitement. Indeed, it’s not difficult to go many years without seeing anything as spectacular as what was witnessed by the lucky six thousand people at London Road last night. Significantly, the moral posturing over this sort of thing in the media often seems to diverge from the feelings of ordinary supporters. Women and children are seldom seen running from grounds in tears at the end of matches at which there has been a fight on the pitch. Indeed, supporters often seem to be considerably more able than some in the media to be able to recognise this sort of thing for what it is – pantomime, and not a very sophisticated example of the genre.
We can identify it as pantomime from the actions of those concerned. For one thing, this sort of fight is almost always over within a few seconds of starting (the BBC footage of the Peterborough vs Notts County fight, for example, lasts for around thirty seconds and much of that is made up of players merely squaring up to each other). For another, it only takes a short leap of detachment to appreciate how funny they look. The players in their full kit and the reserves in their high-visibility vests have a hyper-real aesthetic quality to them which makes them look (without too much of a need to even squint) like clowns fighting in a circus ring. The pitchside microphones usually pick up the crowd egging the players on, but this is usually between near hysterical squawks of laughter which can only lead us to believe that the supporters themselves don’t actually want the players to hurt each other. It is also worth pointing out that, for all the apparent violence that takes place no-one ever seems to get hurt in these fights. Either footballers aren’t very good at fighting or, you know, they don’t really even mean to hurt each other in the first place.
It may or may not be in the nature of footballers to occasionally overstep the mark and involve themselves in these moments of low farce, and this in itself means that players are unlikely to ever be able to completely break the habit of occasionally grabbing each other by the shirts, pushing each other around and acting as if they have just had a pint of warm lager tipped over their heads in a provincial town centre nightclub at one o’clock on a Sunday morning. The result of this is that the status quo of occasionally doling out almost arbitary fines for such behaviour will remain the modus operandi of the game’s authorities for the forseeable future. It’s applying a sticking plaster, of course, but it is applying a sticking plaster to a slight graze rather than The End Of The World As We Know It. It could be improved by handing them custard pies and over-sized bow ties if things start looking, as Danny Dyer might put it, “a little bit tasty”, but the Football Association would, regrettably, be unlikely wish to be seen to be condoning such behaviour and, in any case, such incidents are usually best treated as unscripted.
Fighting has long since become institutionalised in ice hockey in North America to the extent that professional leagues (including the NHL) have rules for fighting and legislated sanctions for it. It is a part of the culture of that particular game, and we should be at the very least pleased by the fact that there are still players that are prepared to cast their dignity to one side and start shoving each other around in the name of their club for reasons that seldom seem apparent to anyone, including, often, the protagonists themselves. The players of Peterborough United and Notts County may not necessarily have realised it at the time, but they provided many people with an unexpected cheap laugh last night. The decline and fall of western civilisation, it was not.