‘Once Scum Always Scum’, said the banner held aloft by two Aston Villa fans during last Wednesday’s protest at Villa Park. Part of a crowd of around 500 people, they were, of course, voicing their discontent at the soon-to-be-confirmed appointment of Alex McCleish as Aston Villa’s new manager – a move which, for obvious reasons, has caused outrage in the Second City.
Consider that message for a minute. Initially, as a football fan, it will wash over you – we are exposed to this type of language (and much worse) and these sorts of messages at every game we attend, in every conversation we are involved in about rivals or those we dislike, on every talkSport phone-in. Yet here is a man labelled as ‘scum’ (and irredeemably so), not because of his actions, or words, or anything he has done to harm or defame Aston Villa – simply because he had a job managing a Premiership football team a few miles away.
That may sound a little too simplistic, given all the feelings and history entwined in a typical local football rivalry, and a particularly fierce one at that. But strip away the emotions, and this is the bare fact we are left with. Does it not seem a saddening situation that so many could lose sight of that in such a spectacularly ignorant fashion?
I am not for a second suggesting that rivalries in football, especially this particular one which I have grown up with, are nonsense. (Neither do I share the oft-stated desire that football be more like rugby or cricket is perceived to be – fans of rival teams sitting together, utterly respectful of their opposition). Local rivalries in football can be emotional, hair-raising, bittersweet, wonderful affairs, and in the form they take they may well be unique to the sport. They can produce the most memorable occasions in our lives as fans – the very worst (Enckelman, 2002 – the proverbial salt in the wound) and the very best (Cahill, 2006 – the weight finally lifted, and in such ‘spectacular fashion’). They can set a city alight in the most positive and electrifying way – they can, perversely, bring people together.
Or at least they should. But for what can often seem a majority, they are an excuse to bring out the very worst aspects of football fandom – the vile, vicious abuse, the mindless hatred and, as we have seen recently in Scotland and are now reportedly seeing in Birmingham, the rather chilling threats to the lives of those perceived as the ultimate enemy.
The latter is, quite simply, disgusting. The phrase ‘death threats’ is becoming all-too-familiar – to an even greater extent than the words in the banner, we should not forget how horrifyingly real it is for those on the receiving end. It is an utterly ludicrous situation that Neil Lennon, or Alex McCleish or anyone at all should have to suffer this level of vitriol with so shameful and weak a justification. Such brainless tribalism seriously damages football.
Yet it goes on, and it will continue to go on. There is little end in sight – the abuse will continue, the ignorance will continue. I am confident that there are a great mass of sensible, intelligent football fans in this country, but Sky Sports News has no interest in filming them – those who roll out that most withering of footballing threats, the non-renewal (or, in more extreme cases, immolation) of the season ticket, are the newsworthy ones. And on that note, a parting message to those threatening such action at Villa Park this season – go ahead, you have my absolute blessing. The less of you in football, the better.