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16 January 2014

How to counter the menacingly authoritarian tendencies of modern football

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

By Martin Cloake

“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.

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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.