This blog is part of my New Year’s Resolution series. More to come…
Trigger Warning: Discussion of misogyny, rape and racism.
As a football supporter, this year has been an interesting and difficult one for me. In the first of my ‘New Year’s Resolutions’ I talk about losing faith with the teams I followed, and finding it in equality-based football.
I remember the first ever football match I went to; Sheffield United versus Leicester, at Bramall Lane, with my Grandpa and Uncle Duncan. We won, but Leicester had already secured promotion to the league above, and four-year-old-me thought this was deeply unfair.
I remember the best football match I’ve ever been to; Celtic versus Barcelona, Champions League group stages, 2012, Celtic Park, with my one of my best friends, Liam. It was the 125th anniversary game. Celtic won. I have never experienced anything like it before or since.
These are teams that I have loved – Celtic since I adopted them and the City of Glasgow 6 years ago, Sheffield United since I first knew what football was. And these are both teams that in the past year I have decided to leave behind.
This story sits with three players; Lee Griffiths and Aleksandar Tonev of Celtic, and Ched Evans, formerly of Sheffield United. Griffiths and Tonev have both been pulled up for racist language and behaviour in the past year. In Griffiths’ case, he was caught on video being racist. Celtic did nothing. Tonev was accused of using racist language towards Shay Logan, and was punished by the Scottish Football Association for doing so with a 7-game ban. Celtic appealed the case, repeatedly refuted the accusation, and, at when the appeal collapsed this week, said that they would continue to give him his full support despite the judgement that, on the balance of probabilities, he had been racist (this article from BBC Scotland’s Tom Evans discusses why Celtic’s position is problematic better than I can). Ched Evans, in a case covered heavily by the English press, was convicted of rape and secured early release this October. After months of silence, Sheffield United released a statement saying that Evans would return to training with the club, then swiftly changed their minds as high-profile board members expressed their disappointment.
I believe that these clubs have a responsibility to all of their fans, including those of all different genders, ethnicities, sexualities and religious beliefs. I believe that a club has a responsibility to set an example and hold all of its players to a standard, regardless of how popular they are or how many goals they score. I believe that they have chosen to disregard this responsibility. Neil Lennon, former Celtic manager, said in 2012 that any form of racism is “an instant sackable offence” at his club. These words seem increasingly empty. Hearing stories of fans chanting “he’s Ched Evans and he does what he likes” does not give me any confidence that Bramall Lane is a safe and inclusive space for women. Neither does the “fan” reaction to Jess Ennis’ and Charlie Webster’s opposition to letting Evans train with the team. And, finally, neither does Sheffield United’s petulant statement after it was forced into a u-turn by the level of press attention. The club’s attitude and approach sets the tone for the team and the support. If discriminatory, harmful and violent behaviour is accepted at the top, then it is deemed acceptable at every level.
So, what options are there for a football fan looking for a new club?
There are football teams in this country, and in many other countries, that campaign for and live by the rule of equality. These are the teams that I support. This year, I have had the pleasure of seeing Babelsberg 03 play near Berlin, visiting the St. Pauli ground in Hamburgh and, most recently, attending an away game in the middle of nowhere with Clapton FC, an East London anti-fascist team playing in the Essex Senior League. At this last match, I was flying the flag for my other adopted Scottish team, United Glasgow, along with two other supporters (one of whom plays for the women’s team). I am proud to support United Glasgow, because I can see the difference that it makes. It lives and breathes its equalities ethos. It has grown beyond its original purpose as a semi-regular football club for refugees, asylum seekers and those excluded for financial or other reasons who want to play football, and now brings people from all kinds of backgrounds together on common ground, promoting better understanding of issues faced and shared by different communities. The Men’s 11s are currently fourth in the Scottish Unity League, and the Women’s 5s team have just been confirmed as champions of their league for the second year in a row.
Playing and following sport can be a powerful tool in bringing people together, but only if clubs really embrace an ethos of anti-discrimination. It is commendable and good to fly a flag for anti-racism, anti-homophobia, anti-sexism and so on, but clubs need to fly these flags all the time, rather than when it is convenient, or when it does not harm profits.
So, resolution number 1 for the New Year: to campaign for equality in and through football (and hopefully other sports as well). My actions include:
What will you do?