“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…”
(“Howl” by Allen Ginsberg)
About three years ago I was walking towards Stark’s Park, the home of Raith Rovers Football Club.
I was with my dad.
We were going to watch our own side, Heart of Midlothian, play a pre-season friendly against the Rovers.
As we walked past the Beveridge Park a strange sight caught my eye.
A group of young boys, and they were boys, began to spill out of the park. Dressed in identical clothes…the same brands, the same cuts, the same hair, the same Liam Gallagher strut. Mean faces. Pinched. Behind them came a smaller group of about three or four older men…or boys trapped in the bodies of men…beer guts, less hair, the same clothes, the same pinched, ugly, malevolent faces.
Old firm with the new firm.
Originals with wannabe’s.
Had those same men exited the park with girls of the same age as their squad of boys they would have been arrested on the spot and placed on the sex offenders register for grooming offences.
Boys from broken homes.
Homes where dad is either physically or emotionally absent…maybe both.
Boys looking for a place where they can belong.
Searching for an identity.
To be someone.
To be anyone…even if that means just being another one.
You see these boys and these men at every football ground across the country.
Shuffling into toilet cubicles for a line.
Stone Island clad.
Huddled together in the same spots.
At this weekend’s Edinburgh Derby match a supporter filmed himself hurling the most vile racist abuse at Marvin Bartley of Hibs.
In a crowd of 18,000 people and with stewards and police officers all around he felt no fear in deploying the sort of racist slurs that, genuinely, I thought had been consigned to the dustbin of history.
It should be noted that I am as close to a free speech absolutist as one can get but that is not the same thing as condoning, or accepting, language like this…certainly not in a public space or in a private space where such language is expressly forbidden in the terms of the contract you enter into when you purchase a ticket.
What people say at home or in private conversations is none of my concern.
But the right to free speech ends the moment you cross the threshold of my home or enter any other private property because, in those spaces, the rights of the property owner trump your individual right to freedom of speech.
My house, my rules.
There were hundreds of people around this person.
They all heard him.
In the footage he uploaded to social media not one voice can be heard challenging him.
That is because he was with the gang of coked up, boozed up, pinched faced, evil people who spilled out of that park in Kirkcaldy.
Fuelled by hate.
Inspired by ages old grievances based on religion and group identity.
Looking for trouble.
Happy to cause it if none can be found.
It is further evidence of the darker side of football…from the treatment of Raheem Sterling to the behaviour of some fans at certain European grounds. Monkey chants, vulgar social media posts and even, as was the case with a Birmingham fan this season, physical assaults of players.
The media, as ever, has a part to play here…the myriad films which glorify the football hooligan, the myth that these people only ever hurt other casuals, the lie that it is just “daft wee laddies”, all of this, and more, has served to place a particular image of the people involved in this behaviour that, at least partly, excuses them.
They are not to be revered.
They have no moral code.
They are not young men who don’t know what they are doing.
There are no excuses.
While august journals like The Guardian will attempt to filter everything through the identity politics, postmodernist, intersectionality lens the truth is that most ordinary people no longer view things through the prism of race. Kehinde Andrews can say what he will about this but he is wrong…I am not a racist and I doubt you are either if you are reading this.
But…there are racists and there is racism.
Football (anti)culture provides a space for that to thrive.
Massive crowds offer anonymity…you can scream and shout and remain invisible.
Genuine extremists have always been drawn to spaces where young, working class men gather…from the skinheads to the present day they have attempted to hijack youth subcultures for nefarious purposes.
Loyalist groups on one side…Republican groups on another. Both attempting to carry on ages old disputes on the terraces. That is the tale of the Old Firm in Scotland. At my own club there are regular chants of wading in the blood of Catholics when Celtic come to play. Union Flags waved, not for patriotic reasons or to celebrate national identity, but to identify the holder as one who has a very specific set of views on a range of issues.
Children who have never been inside a Church have been groomed and radicalised by older men to chant about the murder of Catholics, to glorify terrorists, to vilify minorities, to indulge in homophobia, to engage in wanton violence.
Think of the outcry if a grown man was found to have groomed a young woman in this way…to normalise his own deviance, to allow him to use her for his own purposes. The roar would be loud enough to be heard from Lands End to John ‘O’ Groats.
Sociologists and psychologists will have multiple explanations and theories over why this sort of thing happens, what makes it attractive to people…but the truth is that until the majority howl louder, until people refuse to sit on their hands or cover their ears, until the clubs take ownership of this issue then nothing will change.
I really don’t think it is any more complicated than some people being unpleasant.
Indulging their every desire no matter the consequence on others.
They are also stupid.
Wailing about freedom of speech without ever having read anything on the issue, without ever having thought about the issue of private property and the rights of those who own the property to determine what can and cannot be said or done on their land. Bleating about being shut down or drowned out while attempting to emotionally brutalise a man at his place of work because of the colour of his skin. Howling at the moon about Islam or Catholics or Protestants or the LGBTQ+ community despite never attending Church or having read the holy books or spent time with anyone who was gay.
Ignorant people espousing views that prove exactly that.
Issues like this create problems for people like me who believe in freedom of speech and who understand the vital importance of that principle for a healthy society.
But it creates a bigger problem for the victims of these people…and their are victims.
Marvin Bartley is a footballer, a man, a citizen, a tax payer, a son, a brother…he was at his place of work, doing the job he is paid to do and he was abused for something over which he has no control and which has no bearing on his character. He may well be able to shake it off but I would imagine that as he lay in bed on Saturday night he thought about it, thought about why someone would pick that thing to shout at him…I doubt he shed any tears but I bet he didn’t drift off to sleep with the sort of ease he had the night before.
The person who did it when they are found and taken to court will hide behind alcohol (although they were probably under the influence of something else), they will point to their previous good character and they will shed crocodile tears if they can squeeze them out…
That shouldn’t blind the rest of us to the truth of their character.
They are hateful.
I like a football match with a spicy atmosphere.
I like the roar of the crowd.
I don’t mind “choice” language.
I like feeling the charge in the stadium.
I’ve shouted, jeered, roared, insulted, used profanities…sometimes all in one breath…at games.
I have never racially abused someone.
The reason for that is simple…I’m not a racist.