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Birmingham to Aston Villa: McCleish Saga Shows Ugly Side of Fandom

‘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.

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  1. dAVE Scott

    21 June, 2011 at 12:14

    I think you’re missing something here… To Villa fans B’ham City are known as ‘The Scum’, whilst they call us ‘The Vile’. Sort of negates your article doesn’t it!!!

  2. David Cartwright

    21 June, 2011 at 12:14

    Totally agree, I was opposed to McCleish’s appointment until I thought why, and I couldn’t come up with a football reason. My opposition was because he would split the fans, which is stupid, not because I didn’t think he could do a good job. As fans we sometime think that everyone who works for our club are fans of the club, they aren’t they are doing a job for which they are paid and as in any job they move on. Fans need to get off the bandwagon and start to support the club rather than indulge in petty tribal chants.It also always seems to me that we are obsessed with blues which makes them more important than they are. We as fans should just get on with following our club and being supportive. Great article

  3. davidsmithvilla

    21 June, 2011 at 13:53

    That banner was, quite obviously, just the opinion of the bloke holding it. I’m a Villa fan and I didn’t want him to be our manager. I signed up to the Facebook protest. But where you’ve got it wrong is to endow the 18,000 fans who signed the petition with the same peurile outlook as one bloke with a banner. Wouldn’t it have been more representative of the views of Villa fans to have a look at the 18,000 petition signatories rather than one banner waver? A very cursory glance at the Facebook comments would have shown that at least 95% thought (and still think) he isn’t good emough. The small minority left didn’t want him because of where he came from. I don’t believe Villa will lose one single fan because of this. We know Randy Lerner chose him and we had no say in the matter. We know we have to get behind the team and give McLeish a chance. He will be under a lot of pressure to get results.

  4. Joe Hall

    21 June, 2011 at 18:32

    Dave Scott – I certainly take your point and I’m aware of those nicknames, but I wouldn’t say it negates my article. I have absolutely nothing against the playful or tongue-in-cheek use of terms like that, but my argument here is that fans too often take this type of thing far too far – they genuinely believe that Alex McCleish could never possibly manage Villa because he has managed Blues, and they genuinely hate him for attempting to do so. Yes, that banner was using a common nickname but it was doing so with a real tinge of hatred that is completely unjustified. It is an ignorant position to take and I found that protest embarrassing for Villa.

  5. Joe Hall

    21 June, 2011 at 18:35

    David Cartwright – Thanks, appreciate it. I think what you say makes a lot of sense, and I would add to it that if McCleish had a history of attacking Villa, or saying he disliked the club or would never want to manage them (or any words to that effect – I’m thinking along the lines of Mellberg in 2004), the opposition to him on rivalry grounds would be more justified. But, to my knowledge, he hasn’t – and indeed it’s curious that whilst McCleish was at Blues, there was little anger directly towards him personally from Villa fans (unlike, say, Steve Bruce).

  6. Joe Hall

    21 June, 2011 at 20:40

    David Smith – I agree with you, he would hardly have been my first choice either. I have absolutely no issue with anyone who doesn’t want McCleish because they don’t believe he is the best man for the job – my problem, as I’ve said in the article, is purely with people who have abused and threatened him simply because of his previous employment history. As you correctly say, these are thankfully the minority.

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