Why out of date stereotypes and lazy labelling of football fans are easily challenged

THE Cambridge Dictionary defines a stereotype as: “A set idea that people have about what someone or something is like, especially an idea that is wrong.”

If you define yourself as a football fan, particularly a regular match-going one, the concept will be all too familiar, writes GARETH ROBERTS.

All the evidence points to the fact that the overwhelming majority of supporters go to football matches to do just that: support.

And despite the continued presence of large numbers of police at many matches up and down the country, football-related arrests in England and Wales have more than halved in the past decade.

Regular attenders of matches are subject to a string of draconian and outdated laws that don’t apply to other sports, from not being able to drink alcohol in sight of the pitch to not being allowed to take a tipple on a coach.

Nevertheless, regardless of laws that make it easy for football fans to end up on the wrong side of the law, the latest Government data from The Home Office released in November showed arrests were down six per cent in 2017-18 compared with the previous season.

Sadly, however, and back to the stereotypes, some seemingly have no desire to turn to facts and figures and instead favour their in-built prejudices towards everyone – the thousands, the millions – that like to watch football.

Take, for example, Josh Apiafi. The racing pundit, reacting on television to fighting involving around 50 people at Haydock Park on Saturday, decided to drag football and those who support it into a violent incident at a race track.

On-track fighting incidents also took place at Goodwood, Ascot and Hexham in 2018.

Yet Apiafi said: “Same as Goodwood, same as Ascot and yesterday, there was no Premier football. So you have got a football crowd element – ‘where am I going to go on a Saturday?’. And let’s be blatant, these fixtures are out there, so we know when these things are going to happen.

“The only time we have seen those problems in the past two years there have been no football matches that day and people have gone racing and drank far too much. So it’s not a racing crowd but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing something about it because it spoils it for the people who want to be there.

“What a reflection, it’s on the news about the sport we love and it’s about fighting.”

The last line is enough to send anyone’s irony-meter spinning off the scale. From academics, to some in the police force, to The Football Supporters Federation (FSF) to ordinary everyday fans, many have worked tirelessly to challenge tired, twisted perceptions such as this about our sport.

It’s probably safe to assume that Josh Apiafi didn’t carry out an exit poll at Haydock Park on Saturday to establish that those involved in the unsavoury scenes were lovers of football.

And equally, why does his tin-pot theory apply only to “Premier football”? FA Cup football was played, alongside a full programme of games from Championship downwards and a complete round of non-league fixtures on Saturday. Doesn’t that count?

As Geoff Pearson, a Senior Lecturer in Criminal Law at Manchester University and a researcher and writer on sports law, football crowds and policing, tweeted in response: “The narrative used to be ‘why football and not other sports?’ Now when disorder occurs in other sports some still look to blame football fans.”

The truth is it’s an outdated and inaccurate stereotype that is a hangover from the 1980s.  

Blanket terminology is dangerous however it is used and of course those that wish to perpetuate the negative can point to isolated incidents of violence around football matches.

But it’s far from the norm that it once was with hooligan and firms far out of fashion when compared to a time when violence in and around football matches was not uncommon.

To a football fan that regularly watches matches, travels to grounds and experiences the culture, the views of Josh Apiafi were a jolt as they have little to no basis in the reality of going to games.

Further, supporters as a collective are showing perhaps more than ever before that they are much more than a bunch of drunk oafs hell bent on violence – making the poorly-considered labelling look even more horrifically out of date and inaccurate.

Take just the last couple of weeks as an example. After campaigning led by The FSF on the subject, The Department for Transport is talking to the Premier League, British Transport Police and the Rail Delivery Group about plans to lower the cost of match-day travel for away fans who are subject to increased costs when TV companies reschedule fixtures.

Meanwhile, the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust refused to work with BT Sport on content until it considers talks with fans regarding its scheduling.

Late changes to fixtures have repeatedly left supporters out of pocket, with a recent example being Spurs’ third round FA Cup tie at Tranmere moved to a Friday 7.45pm kick-off, making it impossible for Spurs fans to get home via public transport.

“BT’s current approach of acting with impunity and disdain towards fans is not hitting the mark,” THST said.

“We’re pleased you see fans as suitable material to use in content. If you could also see fans as suitable to have a proper, constructive conversation with to secure a deal that benefits everyone, we could work together productively.”

Supporters have also successfully, and peacefully, campaigned for reductions in ticket prices while the standards of football-fan generated content continues to rise and rise.

Fans are increasingly playing a bigger part in the game they love, challenging the draconian laws, campaigning for fairness and rightly pointing out the key part they play in the sport.

That might not fit the stereotypes of many, but it’s the truth.