The far-right is attempting to return to football. These are the fans fighting it

The Football Lads Alliance claimed to be politically neutral – yet Tommy Robinson was present at marches, and anti-Islam speakers addressed crowds.

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In the aftermath of the June 2017 London Bridge terror attack, the Football Lads Alliance was founded to protest what it considered an inadequate response to terrorism by the British government. Yet what the group claimed was simply a platform for ordinary, working-class football fans to unite against extremism quickly fell into the clutches of the far-right.

Former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson was present at marches, anti-Islam speakers were invited to address crowds, and the Premier League warned clubs over the group’s attendance at matches.

Now, football fans who have had enough of the far-right’s infiltration of the game are taking matters into their own hands. Market trader Lee Stevens, who in the Nineties was a member of Celtic Fans Against Fascism, is one of the founders of Football Lads and Lasses Against Fascism (FLLAF), an organisation that has emerged in recent months to oppose groups such as the FLA.

“The National Front and the British National Party did this [tried to infiltrate football] years ago,” explains Stevens. “The English Defence League tried it recently, and now we have this new movement. Football has huge political potential, so it's not surprising that such groups keep trying to do this.”

The FLA faced accusations of being part of the far-right from the offset, yet the group initially appeared to distance itself from such claims. It liaised with local anti-fascist groups prior to marches, used carefully chosen language designed to stress inclusivity, and its then leader John Meighan declared: “Politically, we’re not left, we’re not right, we’re centre-middle and representing everyone against all forms of extremism.”

But as time passed, this all changed. Supposedly peaceful protests spiralled into violence towards anti-racist groups as football hooligan “firms”, who once dominated the English Defence League, joined the ranks of the marchers.

Islamophic language became commonplace at such protests, where there was also a growing willingness to embrace speakers from the far-right. Among those invited to speak were the founder and leader of anti-Islam party, For Britain, Anne Marie Waters; director of Make Britain Great Again, Luke Nash-Jones; and founder of Mothers Against Radical Islam and Sharia, Toni Bugle.

A shift to the right became evident online too, according to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which has monitored the movement’s social media posts since its inception. The insitute reported the emergence of narratives like those espoused by Britain First, For Britain, and Tommy Robinson, with posts highlighting the alleged danger posed by Islam, the ruinous impact of immigration, and the threat caused by both to notions of “British identity”.

In February this year, following dissatisfaction with Meighan’s leadership, the Alliance split, leading to the creation of Democratic Football Fans Alliance (DFLA). Although each group regards itself as the “true” FLA and the other as illegitimate, there seems a degree of ideological common ground, specifically over the movement’s founding ethos. 

“We are anti-racist and anti-violence with no intention of seeking a political position but every intention of seeking justice based on what is right and wrong. We are not seeking to alienate any demographic but are seeking to bring to justice anyone who believes they are above the laws of this land and the values and traditions of our country,” a spokesperson for the DFLA said.

Despite this, a sense of unease about the movement’s rightward shift has already led the Premier League and the UK Football Policing Unit to warn clubs about the presence of the FLA and the DFLA at matches, leading to bans of the organisations’ flags, which boast their respective crests, at several stadiums.

Such bans don’t prevent the groups from attempting to reach out to fans via social media or from campaigning outside grounds, according to Stevens. He hopes his counter-organisation will replicate the tactics used against the EDL, which, having attracted the support of many football hooligans, tried to increase its presence among football supporters. Back then, it was the efforts of ordinary fans that helped thwart such attempts, having taken inspiration from the anti-Nazi league club groups that had challenged the National Front in the 1970s.

“We are going to hopefully do something similar today,” continues Stevens. “As well as mobilising against their marches, we are going to counter them at our own clubs by leafleting, using sticker campaigns and ensuring that our voice is heard amongst fans, not just theirs.”

Despite its infancy, Stevens says the FLLAF has been inundated with requests by fans to set up club level groups, from supporters of non-league teams like FC United of Manchester to those of Premier League giants like Everton and Liverpool.

“We’ve had communication from across the football pyramid and from all over the country. And that tells me that people are concerned but also that they won’t take what’s happening lying down. We’ve been here before and beaten them back. I’m confident that collectively we’ll do the same again.”