The Football Lads Alliance doesn’t represent football fans, so don’t judge us by their thuggishness

I had a troubling experience yesterday. A thing I love came under attack for being racist, or at the very least, associated with racism.  I’m talking about the football community.  It’s not a new attack, but it gave me pause for thought on how we communicate with one another – particularly those on the liberal side of politics.

Before we begin, I need to state that were this an article about the racists responding to Black Lives Matter then they’d feel the full force of my keyboard. Their views are abhorrent and have no place in our society. But I’m interested in a specific part of the debate that emerged: the conflation of the racist thugs with football.

I regard myself as part of the broader progressive movement.  I support the Black Lives Matter cause, I campaign on equality and the environment.  Among the people I’ve watched football with are socialists, moderates, one nation types, liberals, greens and people who don’t care at all about politics. Nobody I go to football with has ever said anything remotely bigoted or racist in my presence.  However, I have heard a handful of racist comments made by other people in football grounds.  Every one of them was a disgrace.  I’ve reported people to stewards and spoken to perpetrators too.

So when I saw a stream of tweets damning the racist protestors in London as ‘angry football lads’  with ‘nothing better to do’ I bristled.  The fact that the idiots causing trouble call themselves the Football Lads Alliance means nothing. It’s just another cover title for the nasty far right, which is again using the game as a recruiting ground for hatred.  Let’s not be fooled by them – they don’t represent football fans and they never will.

But I’m not under any illusions: there are racist people who watch football.  Of course that’s true.  And there are historic problems with racism in football that persist today.  But when I saw the accusations lazily conflating football fan culture with racism, as if the two were synonymous in 2020, I felt a very visceral response.  I was affronted.  I was insulted.  I was angry.  Somebody even made a bizarre analogy asking whether the WI would riot!  I’m sure there haven’t been WI riots, though my experience of talking to women in the WI demographic suggests that a significant minority of people who might be eligible to join the group have some troubling opinions on race matters – just like the tiny minority of football fans who go to racist marches or commit hate crimes in football grounds.  But that doesn’t mean I’d argue that older women are racist, so nor should others argue that football fan culture is synonymous with racism.

One thing that was noticeable was that the people making these statements about ‘football fans’ were all of the remainer, progressive side.  It’s a side that is usually very good at being open-minded, analytical and non-prejudiced.  I know, because I’m part of that side on most debates, whether it’s about the EU, the environment, the economy or education.

But for a moment I felt what it must have been like to be in the mind of the average leave voter in a similar scenario – just replace ‘football fan’ with ‘brexit supporter’.  I felt that my side was being attacked and that unfair assumptions were being made.  And by association, as somebody who has been watching football for 25 years, I felt I was being attacked too – often by people who clearly don’t watch football and who were using little more in evidence than a few news stories and a bucketload of assumptions.  I know that if I could sit down and discuss my personal experiences of being a football fan, I could perhaps convince people that football is a pursuit that some racists attach themselves to, not a cause that marks you out as a racist.  And I certainly have little in common politically with the thugs chanting “ten German bombers” near the statue of Churchill – nor do the people I go to football with or hundreds of thousands of others in grounds up and down the country every weekend.

Those people rioting in London were there as part of their bigoted response to the Black Lives Matter campaign.  It’s a campaign I support and one I know that I must be an ally of.  We all have a responsibility to listen to the black community and seek to understand, even though some of us will never be able to feel the everyday struggles felt by black people.  As a white man, I know I never will.  And just to be entirely clear, I certainly don’t view football fans as an oppressed group.  Nor is there any parallel between the plight of football fans and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Indeed, I know that the football community must do better to fight racism, just like the rest of society does.  That is not in dispute.  But if we are all to communicate more effectively and heal divides, using broad brush terms to attack whole sections of the community – including football fans, Conservative voters or Brexit supporters – isn’t going to help.  The anti-racist cause actually has a huge number of allies in the football community, including me.  But my gut response to reading the accusations about football fans gives me an insight into how it might be very easy to lash out and adopt an entrenched position in defence of one’s own side – that’s not healthy for any debate.

So next time you feel the need to condemn ‘football fans’ as racist on the grounds of one event where a football song is sung by people claiming to be football fans, please don’t.  It really doesn’t help.  The same principle ought to apply to the internationalist cause and the cause of liberalism too.  I know we are all angry and frustrated, but if we are going to persuade people of our righteousness we need to reach out across divides and listen to one another, not recklessly dish out prejudices of our own.



* Max Wilkinson is the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Cheltenham. He’s also a local councillor and cabinet member for economic development, tourism, culture and wellbeing.

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  • One of the most annoying things re sky news, it kept saying protesters are doing this and that, without ever saying these were right wing idiots. Leaving some people to believe that it was the black lives matter campaign. As for “football supporters” you have to admit some clubs have well organised nasties in their midst who through time arranged battles etc with visiting teams. and I cannot remember a time when i Havent heard racist chants etc at football matches. You are right they need to be reported and the individuals banned

  • So, a minor rebuttal, perhaps. As a sitting councillor, active in Licensing, until we stop having to designate home and away pubs, and insisting any pub that wants to open on matchday needs security guards there from opening to avoid problems, and until the best diagnostic of whether someone’s going to be a bigot in a doorstep conversation in my ward stops being that (a) they have a St George’s flag displayed or (b) a football shirt on when they answer the door, I will continue to flinch from the image of football you’re presenting. It’s not the one I see on the ground. The ‘nice’ fans have a lot of work still to do to ‘take back their sport’.

  • Richard Underhill 14th Jun '20 - 9:30am

    We watched a highlight programme Netherlands 2 England 4

  • As someone who is a season ticket holder at a well-known football club and attends many away matches, I can say with confidence that the mob of thugs that descended on London yesterday bear no resemblance at all to football supporters. Every club in the country would tell them to go away (I would be tempted to use more colourful Anglo-Saxon language here). On my club’s independent fan forums I have seem nothing but contempt for the attempts by Stephen Yaxley-Lennon and his followers to attach themselves to the national game.

  • Brilliant article Max. As a white, male supporter of Arsenal i’m lucky enough not only to have grown up amongst one of the most diverse fan bases in the country but also idolising a number of black players (namely Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Ian Wright), so I also hate to see a sport I hold so dear being conflated with racism. The thugs seen “defending” Churchill’s statue remind me of the same thugs that travel abroad with the England team, often without a match ticket, with the explicit intention of causing trouble and damaging the reputation of the 99% of England fans that simply want to enjoy visiting a new country and watching England.

  • Peter Martin 14th Jun '20 - 11:46am

    I fully agree with the sentiments expressed in the OP.

    Football isn’t perfect. There’s far too much money involved, for one thing, but it has a good record in the anti racism struggle. There was never any reluctance to support sporting bans on South Africa in the apartheid era. The people using the banner FLA mainly don’t look the type who have ever lasted for 90 minute on a football pitch. It’s hard going and the younger element would be far better advised to use whatever energies they have to get themselves fit and have a try at the game for themselves. Even if it’s just a five a side pub team.

    They’ll learn to play with and against players of all races and social backgrounds. There’s no better social leveller. Barristers and manual workers are the same first name, or nickname, terms when they are part of the same team. There’s no room for airs and graces when you’re all naked together in the showers after the match!

  • Peter Martin 14th Jun '20 - 11:58am

    @ Ian,

    ” Many thought Hitler only wanted to redress things. Many of the worst excesses of the Nazi era were in the future.”

    Maybe. But they were still bad enough in the prewar era. There is really no excuse for the appeasers. Hitler was obliging enough to set out what he had in mind in Mein Kampf.

    It was all there for anyone to read.

  • Sean Hyland 14th Jun '20 - 1:35pm

    A well reasoned post from Max Wilkinson. As a fan I also deplore the actions of a minority of fans who are racist first and fans second. Football still has much to do but has come a long way. Long gone are the days when we challenged and stopped the National Front selling their leaf!she and papers outside the ground. I don’t go to as many matches as I used to but always plan .h hometown visits to include a match if I can. Whilst there on the rare occasions I hear anything it is always challenging other fans, stewards called and individuals warned and ejected from the ground. We don’t have home and away pubs luckily as the club works hard, as many others in the lower leagues do, to be a community based club. As Peter Martin notes the increase in money at some levels of football has not helped in some matters. I have noted an increasing tribalism in the long standing rivalry between some clubs.
    Do prearranged meet up for a fight still exist? Think that’s a long gone phenomenon confined to bad films in the main. I accept that eve may see more than I do due to her committee work and I am happy to be corrected. We did have a brief spell at my own club of youngsters imitating the characters of one of these films when it came out but they were told to stop or be ejected.
    As Max Wilkinson points out your can probably find individuals with some degree of racist views in a lot of organised groups. The important thing is having the structural challenge,debate and take action against them.
    I also get his point ‘re leave voters etc and not judging the whole group as one. A number of Lib Dem voters actually voted leave according to the research while supporting the majority of other Lib Dem policies. Doesn’t make them any less a liberal or anymore a racist.

  • Max Wilkinson 14th Jun '20 - 3:09pm

    Thanks for all the comments. It’s lovely to see people engaging in this debate.

    Bob – you say you “can’t remember a time when you haven’t heard racist chants at football matches”. I can remember plenty of times – like nearly all of the hundreds of games I’ve attended. Perhaps you don’t attend football, or even watch it. Perhaps you’re thinking of games in other countries. Furthermore, it seems that you have read my article and not taken anything on board about the harm caused by sweeping statements. As for ‘nasties’, I assure you these people are in a small minority. We must get rid of them, of course. But look at the stats on arrests for football violence and/or racism and think about the percentages of crowds that represents.

    Eve – your experience on licensing is doubtless instructive. But without going into detail, the security guards you mention are there to ensure that the tiny minority is dealt with. You’ll may have had to deal with licensing clubs, pubs and bars on Friday and Saturday nights, which may have involved doormen. It may be instructive to consider how you feel about people who go to pubs, bars and nightclubs on the weekend. And if you feel instinctively against them, perhaps you ought to reconsider things from a more liberal perspective. With regard to your comments about football shirts and England flags, please see my comments to Bob above about making sweeping statements. In your case, perhaps you might think about how you felt when Emily Thornberry posted that photograph of the house with the England flags during the by-election a few years back.

    Ian – I’m not sure I agree with your comments about things being orchestrated by ‘the left’.

    Thanks to Paul, George and Peter for positive comments.

    In the interests of avoiding the rabbit hole apparently known as Godwin’s Law, I’ll steer clear of further responses to comments made so far.


  • Sue Sutherland 14th Jun '20 - 7:29pm

    It seems that what might be needed is a group of people called Football Allies of Black Lives Matter ?

  • Peter Martin 15th Jun '20 - 7:28am

    @ Max,

    “I can remember plenty of times {there’s been no racist chanting} – like nearly all of the hundreds of games I’ve attended.”

    I’d agree with that. I can’t remember it ever happening at the club I support. There can be more of a problem with individual supporters making inappropriate remarks about the ethnicity of opposition players but they will likely be colour blind towards their own side. But they’ll be told they’ve overstepped the mark by other supporters and if they carry on they’re reported to the stewards who have the authority to throw them out.

  • Racism in football like in other areas of our lives is a behaviour and behaviours are secondary. We need to look before the behaviour to the reasons behind it. Partly it is a symptom of fear, aggression and excitement, normal emotions directed in an unhealthy direction. If we become more aware of where these feelings come from, they will become less intrusive and so not lead to undesirable behaviour.

  • Peter Martin 15th Jun '20 - 1:31pm

    @ Sue,

    We already have the “Kick It Out” which has widespread support.

    Certain clubs in Britain do have a more leftish support base. I’m thinking of Liverpool and Celtic. But, generally speaking, I’d say that as far as possible politics should be kept out of sport. I wouldn’t have any problem with Lib Dems in my team for example 🙂

    Some years ago my club recruited Neil Lennon, an ex Celtic manager at the time, and now back to being their manager currently. He did say that he was pleased that his religion wasn’t an issue at all. He was right, we don’t do sectarianism. It didn’t work out unfortunately, and its not been much better since! But at least I’m pleased that he didn’t have that problem to contend with.

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