Monday, 22 October 2012

Why Kirkland's attacker has lost all sense of perspective

A friend of mine once told me that she had taken to the sofa for the evening to watch a film with her husband. When I enquired as to what it was, she told me that it was the elf-hooligan epic Green Street. Both will watch the football if the kids have it on in the living room, but neither would declare themselves as loyal football fans.

If the film choice was odd, the declaration that the film was somewhat Shakespearean surprised me. Despite taking a drama A-level at school, I always interpreted Bill's work as largely nonsensical and often plain daft. It was only after the disgraceful scenes at Hillsborough on Friday night that this comment returned to me and it began to make a little sense.

The Shakespearean element of the Dyer-esque football firm film was said to be the tribalism that was shown to accompany supporting a football team. The supposed logic behind football rivalry in the film is very simple. If playing at home, it is our land and we will protect it. If away, we will try to claim opposition territory and let everybody know about it. It's a cross between medieval knighthood and capture the flag, but slightly less noble than either.

Clearly, the actions of one Leeds United fan did not have any place in football. It was a cowardly assault on a man who had no part in the caveman theories of the match-going fan. The police will deal with the man in question and there is little more to be said about the act itself. As the kind of person who is often found rummaging in haystacks, I was going to hunt for some logic in his actions.

There was none.

What went through the fan's head, only he will know. I doubt it consisted of cohesive thought, let alone substantial risk-assessment.

Instead of searching for grass in a desert, it's worth looking at the following theory. There are two types of football fan when the derby comes to town.

The first is the normal one, like you or I. We don't like the opposition and we really, really want to beat them. Losing a derby fixture is deeply painful and makes for a miserable week, at the very least. I am an Oxford United fan and have been fortunate to witness four consecutive victories over our rivals, Swindon Town. Three of those saw Paolo Di Canio cut a forlorn figure on the touchline (technically, once he was in the stand) and a cherry was placed on the top of the derby victory cake. Every one of those wins was great and will live with me forever. They are the most tense of fixtures, but the emotions that accompany a goal or victory are difficult to describe.

Here is the thing though. When we have scored goals against Swindon, I have never thought that the moment could be improved with a fight. We've all ended up a couple of rows lower down the stand than we were before the goal, but we've never ended up running around the pitch. It's very easy for this type of football fan to remain within the law at a football match. We'll sing our songs and question the parentage of the Swindon support, but it won't go much further.

We don't like our rivals, but it doesn't extend beyond a theoretical dislike. A fixture against the opposition provides an opportunity to gain the upper-hand in the stands and on the field, but that is where it ends.

At Oxford United, we have a couple of fixtures against the Swindon Town supporters every season. We have a game of football between us, we exchange opinions about who has a greater number of fingers and we are fiercely competitive. However, we could go for a pint after the game. They are the rivals, but they are actually pretty similar to ourselves. They just wear different shirts.

This is the concept that escapes the other type of derby day football fan.

After the events of Friday night, the supporter in question kindly left his Facebook page open to the world. As a word of advice, if you're going to disgrace yourself on television, it is always worth hiding your photos (and mobile number) beforehand. However, as I had a little browse through the suspect's page, it was possible to conduct a brief human study.

Comments on photos quickly made it clear that he had been banned from football grounds previously and he was not particularly embarrassed about it. One comment mentioned the 'Service Crew'. This group are not half as helpful as they sound and were actually the banner under which the Leeds United hooligan element operated in years gone by.

One key feature of this type of derby fixture fan is that they have not noticed that these days are long gone. Most clubs have this minority. Football is a far nicer place than it was in the 1980s and when we see thousands of women and children entering our football stadiums, we are reminded that the modern game is vastly improved on a social level.

The belief that you go to a football match to do anything other than support your team has decreased significantly, but the minority will always remain. The logic behind this was made clear by another comment on the aggressor's page. One comment read: 'We are Leeds United. We do what we want.'

As the fan begins his 16 weeks behind bars, it feels right to point out that in reality, maybe you don't do what you want. Perhaps you're not actually Leeds United either.

The club were extremely quick to condemn the events of Friday night and fully support the police in their efforts to find the perpetrator. With Neil Warnock describing the fan as 'a disgrace', it is clearer than ever that this behaviour isn't what football support is about in the 21st century. While the gleeful grin on the face of the fan as he returned to the stand suggested that he thought he had done his club a service, Leeds fans were united in their criticism of his actions. When your club and fellow supporters are vocal in their criticism of your conduct, it is time to realise how deluded you have become. There should be no greater shame than embarrassing your club.

A football club gains its victories on the field of play. The points are compiled in a table and the key protagonists are those who can actually change the course of the game. Fans are largely fantastic. They are vocal, passionate and without them, the game would not survive. The great fans are those who travel the length of the country to a wet and windy terrace to sing their support for their team. They are the fans that the club are proud of. There are thousands of fans who do this every week and it is they who are tainted by the actions of the minority.

Criticising the fan who goes to the game willing to have a scrap is not a sign of football going soft. It is just a sign that it is growing up.

Football rivalry is fantastic. The highs and lows of football are exacerbated by rivalry and nobody wants to remove it from the game. However, there should also be a sense of perspective in this. If you would avoid giving an opposition fan your custom due to the team that he supports, the self-indulgence may have gone several steps too far.

While it often feels like so much more, our rivals just wear a different badge on their chests. There are still some who need to grasp this.

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