You'll never jeer alone: Taunts during the Busby tribute did not surprise Peter Corrigan

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The Independent Online
SUPPORTERS of Leeds United sent ripples of shock and distaste through the nation last Sunday when they chanted in defiance of the minute's silence being observed for Sir Matt Busby before their match at Blackburn Rovers.

Their invasion of this show of respect for a great football manager included, among other things, shouting the name of their own hero, Don Revie. Similar breaches of etiquette disrupted the solemn occasions at other football grounds last weekend, including Chelsea and Liverpool, but none provoked such a strong reaction.

Those responsible for the disturbance at Blackburn have been banned from watching Leeds for the rest of their lives. It is a Draconian sentence tempered only by the fact that the club is still trying to find out who the culprits are. Other Leeds supporters are reported to be phoning the club with the names of the guilty. Some who were pictured in local papers allegedly shouting have complained that the photographs were not taken during the minute's silence. The photographers are being asked to give evidence about the time the pictures were taken . . .

In short, there are exhaustive, if forlorn, efforts to seek out the fans who caused the outraged Leeds chairman, Leslie Silver, to make a fulsome apology to Manchester United and Sir Matt's family and pledge himself to the most severe retribution.

But, as much as we can sympathise with Mr Silver's embarrassment and indignation, the fact is that the chants at Blackburn were pathetically tame compared with the brutal eloquence with which football supporters normally insult each other.

Indeed, an examination of the transgressions of Leeds supporters through the last decade would reveal a far worse list of offences, involving the terrorising of public transport and city centres. These outrages have never occasioned anything like the same determination to root out the perpetrators. It does no favour to the game, nor to sport generally, to react so sharply to what was no more than routine conduct for an alarmingly large number of fans.

Banish them by all means, for they will be no loss, but do not make the mistake of considering it to be a significant step towards eradicating the hooligan element that infests our football grounds. It is not against the law to disturb the grief of others. It may be an offence against decency, but so is jeering the national anthem of an opposing side. I can't remember when an anthem wasn't rudely barracked just as I don't recall a minute's silence ever being observed.

The editor of this newspaper is not ashamed to reveal that he was once a turnstile operator at Dunfermline Athletic. In fact, it was what he was doing the day after Kennedy was assassinated. Glasgow Rangers were the visitors in that week's match. Players on both sides wore black arm-bands and stood solemnly for the minute's silence. Down from the Rangers' end rolled the boos and jeers. Kennedy was, after all, a Catholic.

You didn't have to be a Welshman in the late 1960s to wince when fans of some English teams chanted 'Aberfan, Aberfan' when playing a Welsh side. The cruel baiting of the opposition has long been etched into the culture of the terraces and, if anything, the chanting has become more sophisticated and pitiless since security improvements in and around the grounds have deprived fans of the opportunity to fight each other.

Sir Matt Busby himself would have heard far more despicable chanting going on about him for years. Manchester United fans have the habit of singing the pleasant Monty Python ditty 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life'. Opposing supporters have adapted the words to 'Always look on the runway for ice', a reference to the Munich air disaster of 1958.

There is another, more chillingly elaborate version sung to the tune of 'An English Country Garden', too vicious to repeat, that gets heard often when United are playing. Neither should the United fans be regarded as innocents in these exchanges. Who writes the words and how they are sung in unison by so many is a mystery. Some of the songs can be quite amusing but most are malicious and many are racist.

Tottenham Hotspur is traditionally regarded as having a large Jewish following and some Chelsea fans are fond of serenading them with these words to the tune of 'Singing the Blues': 'I never feel more like gassing the Jews, when Tottenham win and Chelsea lose'. And whenever England are playing at Wembley, the sizeable National Front element among their supporters will regale their fellow passengers on the tubes and trains with renditions of 'There ain't no black in the Union Jack'.

Football fans have enjoyed a more respectable profile in recent years. From their ranks have emerged best-selling writers such as Nick Hornby, and he has been followed by others who have expressed as never before the supporters' deep feelings for the game. This has tended to give the cosy impression that the average fan likes nothing better than penning a poem for his local fanzine, and may partly explain why the defilers of the Busby tributes were more shocking to the world at large than regular followers of football would have expected.

The truth is that our national game is founded firmly on a tradition of rivalry, even hatred, between major clubs, reinforced by a century of the most intensely competitive leagues in the world. We have been happy to turn blind eyes and deaf ears to the excesses of these rivalries, apart from ritualistic cries of 'hooliganism' when it spills outside the football ground, or when a person of Busby's stature brings it to a wider public gaze. But if we pretend that this was an isolated - or a particularly wicked - outbreak of malevolence, we destroy any chance of removing it from the game.