We often hear throughout the season about the respect campaign within football. Whether it’s respect the referee, the ‘handshakes’ at the beginning or the game, or ‘kick out racism’ campaign, well any discrimination for that matter. My passion has always been with Liverpool, so the respect campaign has always been well publicised during the games and any TV broadcasts. However, I had the chance to see my local team in a playoff final last season and it was clear to see the respect campaign does not necessarily reach grass roots.
It was Bank Holiday Monday, Rugby Town v Biggleswade Town. The game was promoted as “support the town.” The crowds were big (for Rugby Town), approximately 1,500 were there for the game, usually I’m told the average is about 150. There was a family stand on one side of the ground but from the crowds, it appeared to be a more family occasion with parents bringing their children. I stood in the terraces behind the opposition’s goal for both halves with some of the more ‘hardcore’ fans. We hear so much about what has or is being done at grass roots level to respect the referee and the players. Sky Sports will often to do special presentations on the progress of this and how referees are more respected. So as the players ran onto the pitch to cheers by the crowd my expectations were for a ‘respected’ game. The players as expected shook hands with each other and with the referee. By the time the opposition players reach the end where I am standing, they are already introduced to a fan shouting abuse at them.
I stand watching, taking in the atmosphere, as after all this is a big occasion for Rugby Town. However, with the fan being encouraged by other fans, more abuse is given to the opposition. The Biggleswade Town goalkeeper’s kit is pink and quickly became the centre of attention for banter or abuse. Friendly banter is given by the crowd and to the goalkeeper, “Your mum’s got your washing mixed up”, one member of the crowd cries. Another shouts, “You know you have to separate the whites from the colours right?” The crowd at my terrace are buoyed by the reaction from the playful interaction with the goalkeeper. It is friendly banter taken in good spirits and the abuse from earlier seems to have died down. Yet more and more people push the boundaries of the ‘friendly’ banter, the odd homophobic remark gets thrown in, much to the delight of the crowd, until chants which comment on the players sexuality continue throughout the match.
As the match progresses, Rugby Town concede a goal in the final stages of the match, previously there had been a dubious penalty decision against them. The players surround the referee on numerous occasions, the stress of the game clearly getting to them. More explicit terms of abuse are chanted towards the referee. Although it is not the odd person now, there are groups of fans around me chanting the abuse towards the reference and the opposition supporters. Is this the ‘respect campaign’ that was meant to have been introduced at grass roots level?
There were parents with their children looking distressed at the chants and the abusive signs being gestured. The ground is small and quite compact which meant the groups of people were close together. The chanting could have been heard over at the family side of the ground. Although this was not just an area for families as they were around the ground. I questioned myself after the match as to whether football is a family game anymore? Is that an environment suitable for children, obviously only the parents can make that judgment call but is that the behaviour you would expect from a local football match? Yes at bigger matches, chants of abuse happen but with the spotlight so much on the Premier League and racist or homophobic chants, what next for the rest of the football league? Is it for the stewards to report people for abusive chanting which are homophobic? Where do you draw the line between friendly banter and abuse?
I must add the day was still enjoyable and I am not criticising my local team directly. I’m sure this could happen across other lower league matches, but I pose the question, would you be happy to take your child to the game? Knowing that for durations of the game, you’ll hear someone be possibly discriminated because of their goalkeeper kit is pink and have to listen to on-going abusive language? It will be interesting to see if the measures taken within the Premier League trickle down to the lower leagues for the years to come.
Thanks for reading and I’d be interested to hear your comments or thoughts on the matter.