Gary Neville did not go far enough. The Tories are the enemies of football. If Boris Johnson is given a working majority in Parliament on Thursday in the General Election, stadiums across the country will become more toxic. Neville pointed the finger at the Prime Minister after Fred, the Manchester United midfielder, was allegedly racially abused by a Manchester City fan at the Etihad on Saturday night. It was brave and necessary criticism from the former United full back. Johnson has a long history of making racist comments. It is hard to imagine how a man who wrote “tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles” came to lead a multicultural nation. He uses the language of the 19th century – not the 21st.
Yet over the past three years, since he got a sniff of Downing Street, the old Etonian has in my opinion upped the ante. Johnson appears to have deliberately sought to appeal to some of the worst characteristics of British culture. The 41-year-old man who was arrested after appearing to gesticulate in an offensive manner at the Manchester derby appears to be precisely Johnson’s target market. Hell, if the Prime Minister can refer to black people as “piccaninnies,” what’s wrong with a monkey gesture? To me, it feels as though Johnson and his ‘bad boys of Brexit’ cronies have legitimised casual hate in a way that seemed unthinkable a decade ago.
It was sickening to see John Barnes in the company of the Conservative leader on Saturday at the Seashell Trust in Cheadle. Johnson was there to publicise the manifesto pledge to bring the World Cup to the UK and Ireland in 2030 and the promise to put £550 million into the grassroots game. Barnes, who ran the gauntlet of racist thugs throughout his playing career, has always taken a somewhat idiosyncratic approach to confronting bigotry. In normal circumstances it would have been a welcome development to see someone of Barnes’s experience meet the Prime Minister to explain what black players and people suffer on a daily basis. In the midst of an election campaign, however, it seemed like an endorsement. Just stand there for the photo op, John, and dazzle the cameras with that smile. My stomach turned watching it.
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The former Watford and Liverpool winger was at his peak when a Tory government showed the most naked contempt for football and its fans. Margaret Thatcher, the demented patron saint of brutish Conservativism, hated the game. Under her regime in the 1980s, supporters were demonised and criminalised. How bad was it? After the Bradford Fire where 56 people died in a decrepit tinderbox of a stand at Valley Parade in 1985, The Sunday Times opined that football was “a slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people, who deter decent folk from turning up.” This was not a reaction to hooliganism. It was a response to the deaths of innocent people in a completely avoidable inferno.
It is an accurate reflection of how Thatcherite acolytes viewed the game. Football was a working-class pursuit and one of the themes of the 80s was the assault on working-class culture. Supporters were part of Thatcher’s “enemy within,” to be monitored with identity cards and policed with a presumption that they were inclined to violence. These thought processes led to Hillsborough and allowed those in authority responsible for the 1989 disaster to believe that they could avoid any accountability for their behaviour. It turned out that they were right and there were no consequences for those who caused the deaths of 96 people.
Thatcher’s most famous assertion was “there is no society.” Her disciples claim the statement does not quite mean what it says. You have to understand the context, they claim. Well that’s nonsense. The so-called Iron Lady believed that individuals only had responsibility to themselves and their family. That in part explained why she could not understand football and why she feared it. Clubs grew out of churches, factories and workers’ associations and, even now, the sport remains underpinned by community spirit. It proves there is society
Johnson appears to have inherited Thatcher’s disdain for the game and her suspicion of civic togetherness. The evidence is clear in the infamous Spectator leader published during his editorship in 2004 after the murder of Kenneth Bigley by Jihadis in Iraq. The article talked of “tribal grievances.” We have already seen Johnson use the word “tribal” to imply that Africans are uncivilised. Now it was applied to football fans. The next paragraph expanded the thought. It said: “The deaths of more than 50 Liverpool football supporters at Hillsborough in 1989 was undeniably a greater tragedy than the single death, however horrible, of Mr Bigley; but that is no excuse for Liverpool’s failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon.”
Johnson did not write this editorial – it is not uncommon for columnists to get someone else to pen their copy for them – but I believe it accurately reflected his views. The belief that the lower orders are predisposed to dangerous, alcohol-fuelled madness when they go the match is deeply ingrained in the Conservative psyche. It lingers today. And it was never just about Liverpool. The likes of Johnson hold their noses whenever they come across football supporters, no matter which part of the country the fans are from.
There are bigger issues at play in this crucial election – the future of the National Health Service, peace in Ireland, Britain’s relationship with Europe – but make no mistake: if Johnson wins, it is my belief that the experience of watching football live will deteriorate.
Racists and bigots will be empowered. Instead of accepting culpability for creating an environment where obscene attitudes thrive, Johnson and those around him will look down their noses at the perpetrators and attribute uncivilised behaviour to the unspeakable lower classes.
The mood of the game reflects the health of the country. Too many incidents over the past few years have shown a racist poison is growing stronger in the stands. Neville is correct to call the Prime Minister to account. The state is sick and in my view electing Johnson will make the illness even more vile. The nation deserves better – and so does football.