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.

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Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s echoes of New Labour

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through bold policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s strategy was so successful that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness.

But, as some say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh; when you make, as you will, bad decisions; when the list of enemies grows long; when you’ve simply had your time; you’ll fall like all the rest. Only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. The debate on 21 May between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of a sure outcome – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. That is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’être is independence; everything else is just another brick to build the path. And so its education reform cannot be either brave or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions, or parents.

The same goes for the NHS, and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature – is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: “It’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs.”

Yet the voters show signs of wearying. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren.

So, during the debate, it was Nicola Sturgeon, not the Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, or Labour’s Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs.

There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use food banks (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster). “I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish government],” Claire Austin told the panel. “You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS.” She delivered the killer line of the evening: “Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you . . . in this election?”

The list of reasonable criticisms of the SNP’s governance is growing. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off. Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried Middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nationalists’ constitution explicitly prohibits SNP elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. Although total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing.

The word “cult” has long dogged the SNP. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning, but this has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage door at times). After the debate, Claire Austin found herself at its mercy as the Nats briefed – wrongly – that she was the wife of a Tory councillor. The SNP branch in Stirling said, Tebbitishly, that if she was having to use food banks, “Maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?”

Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s home affairs spokesperson, was forced to apologise for spreading “Twitter rumours” about Austin. The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but it hasn’t gone away – it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated: they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party.

I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall, it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, and its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly exasperate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and many signs that things will get worse.

How then do you arrest your fall? The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed it. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed. 

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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