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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.