Tradition of hate: A recurrent, sad feature of our football world

As Jack Grealish discovered, so-called grown men are capable of odious behaviour

Birmingham City  fan Paul Mitchell invades the pitch and attacks Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish from behind  during Birmingham derby at St Andrew’s. Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters

Birmingham City fan Paul Mitchell invades the pitch and attacks Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish from behind during Birmingham derby at St Andrew’s. Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters

 

Downstairs in a bookshop on Sauchiehall Street, a thin, white Penguin edition was on display, its title enough to grab the eye of any passing punter.

This being Glasgow, home to an Old Firm football and civic rivalry that seeps from one decade into the next, the setting seemed appropriate.

On The Pleasure of Hating is the book, a short collection of essays written by William Hazlitt. He wrote these around 1820.

As 2020 approaches, sadly Hazlitt still has things to tell us – about hatred, human nature, society and a new-fangled thing (to him), football. He argued that we have a fascination with hate, with feuds, and back in the 1800s, with firebrand religion.

He had many bold lines, one of which was: “Love turns, with a little indulgence, to indifference or disgust: hatred alone is immortal”.

Some use the phrase “90-minute bigot” to explain away their feelings and behaviour during Celtic-Rangers games

You can question that – it’s an opinion, not a fact. But what we cannot question is that it’s been a rare old time for hate and football this past week or so.

At Hibernian, Birmingham City and Arsenal, lads – or grown men to use another term – jumped over the hoardings to confront a player from the opposition.

At Birmingham, Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish was struck from behind by a 27-year-old father of one, Paul Mitchell. Mitchell was jailed for 14 weeks and given a small fine.

Within hours someone had set up a Go Fund Me page to pay for the fine, which showed that while the world of football came crashing down on Mitchell verbally, some supported him financially.

Presumably they did so because their hatred of Villa and Grealish is greater than their sense of everyday wrongs and rights. This is how hate and football can twist ordinary people into behaving extraordinarily.

Understandably there is a focus on the logistics of pitch invasions: the reduced policing at grounds due to increasing costs; the unsuitability of low-paid stewards to control hyped-up supporters. Football was again able to say that it reflects society and that we inhabit an age of rage.

But we must also accept that football feeds this, provokes this. It doesn’t merely reflect it. It adds to the rage.

If the Old Firm did not exist as we have known it, would there still be a divide in Scotland between Catholics and Protestants? Probably. But would it be as sharply defined as it is? Would it have endured as it has?

Some use the phrase “90-minute bigot” to explain away their feelings and behaviour during Celtic-Rangers games, as if to say that views expressed at a match are confined to it and do not bleed into daily life.

Banana thrown

Maybe there is something in this; that the atmosphere and tension within a stadium, particularly on a derby day, exaggerates – out of all proportion – opinions that would normally amount to a whisper, if spoken at all.

The 90-minute bigot phrase has started to be employed elsewhere. Perhaps the Chelsea fans abusing Raheem Sterling at Stamford Bridge in December would claim their contorted faces and words are a 90-minute fury which recedes when they get back on the tube.

Or maybe there is nothing in this 90-minute idea. Because, it’s just in us, latent, and the security of being in a crowd facilitates the vocal expression of sentiment that would not be given a voice otherwise.

“The spirit of malevolence survives the practical exertion of it,” says Hazlitt.

That sentence applies to something like the banana thrown towards Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang by a Tottenham follower in December. It caused alarm because bananas, once common in British football – see John Barnes, Mark Walters etcetera – seemed to have faded into history.

Solutions? An honest appraisal of where we are would be a start

At my first match in England as a student – Newcastle United versus West Ham in 1984 – there were men selling National Front newspapers outside St James’ Park. There were also anti-Nazi protesters. West Ham’s Bobby Barnes had a banana thrown at him that day – Chris Waddle kicked it off the pitch.

But that was 35 years ago and bananas had not often been seen or used in this racial context since. We thought this particular battle, if not the war, had been won. The banana’s reappearance at Aubameyang’s feet proved the spirit of malevolence survived. The practical exertion of it shocked.

It was the same at Easter Road and St Andrews. There are Hibs and Celtic fans for whom the sight of a Rangers jersey prompts raw hostility. Some Rangers and Hearts fans feel this in reverse. Look at the vicious Neil Lennon graffiti near Tynecastle.

The great French cyclist Laurent Fignon was bemused to see “a kind of happy hatred” on the faces of those who wanted him to lose, and there is that attitude among many Rangers and Celtic followers – and Birmingham City’s and so on. Of course, some at Ibrox would simply dismiss him as a Fignon bastard.

We must accept that a group of people who go to football are happy in their hatred, relish the volatile hostility of rivalry. They are on the streets organising fights, enjoying the fear their mobs engender on public transport. This is “the pleasure of hating”.

Poisonous mineral

Hazlitt compared it to “a poisonous mineral”. And there is no doubt that some minds, some football atmospheres have been poisoned. Roy Keane used to speak of the quality of persistence in players and hatred has persistence in abundance. It is particularly disturbing when allied to stupidity; or to intelligence.

Certain cynical politicians’ persistent hatred of the state has seen government cut, regulations cut, councils cut, police levels cut, corners cut. Rangers’ James Tavernier knows the outcome now, so too Grealish and Manchester United’s Chris Smalling. Sterling, James McClean, Steve Clarke, they have also spoken about their hateful experiences this season alone.

Football has been shaped by the society around it, but football is too important in Britain’s daily life to absolve itself of responsibility.

As Arthur Hopcraft said: “The point about football in Britain is that it is not just a sport people take to, like cricket or tennis or running long distances. It is inherent in the people. It is built into the urban psyche.”

Solutions? An honest appraisal of where we are would be a start: a recognition that drug-taking by supporters has escalated rapidly; that good policing, like good teaching, must be properly funded.

It would be depressing to think Hazlitt had it right 200 years ago, that human nature means too many revel in their contempt for it to subside, that hatred is indeed immortal.

Optimism dictates we must argue against him. He has some pretty good retorts, though, see above. Then there’s this: “If mankind had wished for what is right, they might have had it long ago.”

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