How to counter the menacingly authoritarian tendencies of modern football

It's enough to test the most passionate fan’s devotion.

“Absurd” is a word that crops up increasingly frequently the more you look at modern football. Recently, it was used by two rival clubs in an extraordinary joint statement to describe the actions of the police. The statement came in the midst of a row over arrangements for the upcoming Tyne-Wear derby between Newcastle United and Sunderland.

For years, both clubs have pushed for later kick-off times so that there is more chance of the games being broadcast live, and because supporters favour later kick-offs (note the order of priority there). But Northumbria Police have rejected every request, confirming in writing to the Premier League in January last year that it would not be prepared to police derby matches with kick-off times later than 1.30pm.

Ahead of the latest derby, due to take place on 1 February at Newcastle’s St James’s Park ground, the police had also applied pressure for the game to be designated a bubble match – which means no independent transport to the game is allowed for away fans. Supporter organisations objected to this blanket criminalisation of fans, prompting Northumbria Police to issue a statement saying: “Northumbria Police cannot direct changes to kick-off times or control the issue of tickets and how supporters travel to matches.”

The bubble match had already prompted a strong display of unity between both sets of fans, who are fierce rivals. The police statement led to the two clubs themselves issuing a strongly-worded statement, declaring themselves “surprised and disappointed” with the “false and absurd” claim the police made. The clubs said they had “considerable written correspondence” to back their assertion. As result, the statement said: “Newcastle and Sunderland will now inform the Premier League that all future fixtures between the clubs will be available for kick-off times to suit the clubs, the League and their broadcast partners, and will expect Northumbria Police to police these games.”

The clubs also threw out the bubble restrictions imposed on travelling supporters, a move which the police, having said they “do not control the issue of tickets and how supporters travel to matches” can do little about. If there is trouble at the game, expect much to be made of it, and much rerunning of the infamous picture of the Newcastle fan punching a police horse during violent scenes following the last derby at St James’s. Expect less to be made of the fact that, of the 96 people arrested on the day of that game, only six had been to the game. I’ll be writing more about bubble matches and the blanket criminalisation of football fans in an upcoming blog.

In a blog in November last year, I wrote about the propensity of football clubs to ban news reporters when they objected to what they wrote. Last weekend, Swindon Town banned the Swindon Advertiser after the paper’s chief sports writer revealed some information that was already in the public domain. The paper’s Sam Morshead had been tipped off that striker Nile Ranger was due to play in the game against Peterborough, but had agreed not to use the information ahead of the match. But when he saw a tweet by a Swindon fan that showed Rangers shirt hanging in the dressing room, he shared the news on his own feed, shortly before Ranger himself confirmed he was playing on his own Instagram account, which has over 13,000 followers.

The club claimed Peterborough changed their game plan in response to the news, and so banned the paper from home games. As Morshead said: “Once it was in the public domain I felt I had the right to report it. It’s what any reporter would do.” But Swindon Town said the ban was “in the best interests of Swindon Town and its supporters” and that “the decision has been made with the best interests of supporters in mind”. The many fans who spoke out against the ban didn’t see it that way, pointing out the Advertiser was their main source of information about the club, and that the paper had promoted the team for years. As I write this, representatives of the club and the newspaper were meeting to try and resolve matters. But at a number of other clubs, including Southampton, Nottingham Forest and, yes, Newcastle United, bans are still in place.

Covering the absurd, pompous, quick-to-take-offence, greedy and menacingly authoritarian tendencies of the modern game is enough to test the most passionate fan’s devotion. So it was a pleasure to receive the first issue of new football culture magazine Thin White Line this week. It is a combination of beautiful photography and measured observation, with a global outlook wrapped around an Australian core – the magazine is based there – and a wonderful eye for offbeat angles and telling details. The features on the impact of the Oman v Iraq World Cup qualifier and the insight into grass roots relationships between Jews and Arabs at Israeli lower league games puts the absurdities of modern football at the top level into perspective, and is a reminder of how much the game can mean to people. In these pages too, you will find an affectionate memory of George Best’s appearance in Tasmania, a well-observed photo essay about fans on Borussia Munchengladbach’s Nordkurve terrace, and a history of the battle to stop the Americanisation of Australian football. It’s a magazine that gets the real value of the game and one that, in the interest of transparency, I should say I contribute to online and in the next print issue. A subscription is well worth the investment.


A Sunderland fan celebrates at a match against Newcastle in October 2013. Photo: Getty

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

Photo: Getty
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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.