Later today my team plays a match that will determine whether they get back into the Premier League after seven years which saw them falling to the third level of English football.  I shall be so paralysed with despair or delirium when the result is known I thought that I should provide myself a cautionary note for the future, a reminder for myself as to the ugliness of the “beautiful game” and the need not to get too sucked into it, a kind of anti-emotional suicide note.

The first thing to be said is that I am old enough to know that the ugliness isn’t new.  In the 70’s footballers wore long hair and short shorts mainly it would seem to expose bodily targets for the most vicious hacking tackles the game has ever seen, larded with sublime moments of grace from the likes of George Best and Mick Channon.  The crowd standing on the terraces accompanied this theatre of nightmares, this pantomime of beautiful cruelty, with equally nasty chants, with the same energy punk was echoing elsewhere, but with a broader range of targets, including each other.  Blessedly we are now spared the football killings of that era, when football couldn’t quite maintain itself as merely a substitute for war. But the crowd of those days still lurks as a proto-mob, one which still, despite the gentrification marked by the abolition of the standing terraces, is a powerful source locking football into morally primitive positions that are unacceptable, or at least inexpressible, on the surface of the wider society.

One of the eruptions this season concerned racism.  Racist chants from the crowd have painfully been eliminated from football, at least in north-western Europe (although less so from the south and east). The novel feature of the concluding English season is that two footballers were accused of racist comments on the pitch against their fellow players.  The English Football Association (FA) has already decided against one, the courts will decide on the other case, where the alleged perpetrator was until recently the England team captain.  In the case which the FA decided, the finding of the FA regulatory commission, in a comprehensive judgement running to over 115 pages in which all the evidence was carefully reviewed, was that a player had intentionally used the Spanish word ‘negro’ 5 times with the intention of insulting a fellow black player. The player who delivered the insult received an eight-match ban, a £40,000 fine and a warning on his future conduct.

What we learned about contemporary English football came not from the incident itself, as much as the reaction to it.  The manager of the club seemed unable to accept the judgement as fair and put it behind him.  Instead, he gave some at least ambiguous interviews about guilt and innocence and, in a reference to the words of the club anthem, said that the guilty player ‘would never walk alone’.  He seems to have been condoning racist behaviour as normal, or enough within the range of the normal not to justify such a strong penalty. This led the the club’s fans to the edge of collective bad behaviour in supporting the guilty player, with one fan being spoken to by the police for indulging in a bit of freelance racism against another black visiting player.  Hardly surprisingly, it also led this club to a run of bad results on the pitch.  It is said that club’s American owners had to step in to restore order and extract a public apology from the manager after one particularly provocative television interview.  This was a shaming moment for English football.

I know one supporter of this club well, who happens to be black.  He took the team line throughout the matter in supporting the player who was found guilty of abuse over the abused black player.  Is this a sign that we have reached some level of socio-political maturity in Britain, having got beyond the need for our ethnic identities to be uppermost in our choice of identities?  Or are we back to the explanation of the proto-mob, of a collective fan identity that is so strong that it threatens to dominate and distort even the most fundamental values that sustain multiculturalism?

Perhaps the most pernicious form of prejudice which the football mob supports is against homosexuality: pernicious because being gay is not, or does not have to be, immediately visible, and therefore men who are gay may be tempted to deny their sexual orientation.  At the top level of English football the only gay footballer that I am aware of who declared his sexuality committed suicide eight years later in confused circumstances, although has a legacy in a campaign to combat homophobia in football.

Whatever the football crowd is chanting, it sounds like a mob to my beloved and the male devotion to football is a symptom of immaturity to the overwhelming majority of most women I have discussed this with.  This should be reason enough to be cautious; but my team did win, so maybe it is too late to be careful what I wish for.