A week football went mad

Nick Hornby, an Arsenal supporter, believes passion is all part of the game: The fan
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The Independent Online
IT IS generally agreed, by players, fans and journalists alike, that noise in our football stadiums is a good thing, that the game is not the same without it. The recent redevelopments at Old Trafford, Highbury and Anfield, for instance, have resulted in supporters of those teams bemoaning the lack of atmosphere at home games; part of the reason ITV's live Endsleigh League games on Sunday afternoon are so dismal is that there is nobody there, with the result that individual voices roll around theterraces like bottles on a church floor. In their programme notes, managers exhort supporters to get behind the team. Players make gestures to the crowd, asking for more (i.e. louder) support. And what does that noise consist of? Encouragement, certainly; despair, frequently; joy, very occasionally; but also anger, almost inevitably. If you care enough to shout for your team, you will also care when the referee has denied you a clear penalty, when he has given them a dodgy penalty, when your useless centre-forward has tripped over his laces three inches from goal, when the dirty Northern/ Southern/Cockney/Scouse left- back kicks your winger six feet in the air for the seventh time. You jump to your feet. You wave your right arms about. You shout. One or two people - oh, all right then, everybody, just about - uses foul and abusive language. This, I had always understood, was what we were there for. This, like it or not, is part of what we mean by atmosphere.

So how come, in the wake of the Cantona affair, has the behaviour of fans come under more scrutiny than that of the martial artist? Pundit after pundit has pointed out how the animalistic behaviour of the average English fan makes this outrage inevitable. (Interestingly, some of these pundits have spent the previous months complaining that what is ruining the game is its gentrification.) It is unfortunate that Matthew Simmons has a criminal record and a history of neo-Nazi sympathy: it has allowed people to look on Cantona as more sinned against than sinning, and it has also revived all sorts of hoary old myths about football fans. But, as Giles Smith pointed out on these pages last week, if yelling abuse at players is punishable by karate, then the majority of any football crowd will go home with sore ribs.

I am not suggesting that it is laudable to yell obscenities at a fellow human being, even when that human being is, say, David Burrows of Everton. But different rules apply once you are inside a football ground, and most of us (pace the idiotic Blackburnsupporter who attempted to thump the referee last week) know what these rules are: nearly everybody who watches football knows the difference between a wanker sign and a pitch invasion.

There may be fans who refuse to cheer when a member of the opposition is sent off, fans who shake their heads sadly and mutter about the death of Corinthianism, but I have yet to meet one. This season, I, like thousands of others at Highbury, have hugelyenjoyed the dismissals of Mark Hughes, Uwe Rosler and Duncan Ferguson, among others; indeed, the dismissals of Hughes and Ferguson were the only memorable moments of otherwise dismal afternoons. Football's moral guardians will regret this, but you can'thave it both ways: you can't sell the game on its passion, and then express dismay when people show some.