Yesterday I took my 12 year old son to Watford FC to see them play Championship leaders Cardiff. The game finished in a 0-0 draw, although there was some good football played by both teams (especially by Watford in the second half). Fro me however the most entertaining aspect of the encounter was the lively banter between the home and away fans. Cardiff City FC fans are one of the more robust groups of supporters in the footballing world. Watford are a far more family friendly club. For many of us, the banter between supporters is an integral part of the experience.
A good friend of mine originates from Rhyl in Wales. He is a Wrexham fan. Sadly Wrexham have fallen on hard times and are languishing in the Conference. We regularly meet for a beer and a curry. Football is always a hot topic. As a supporter of a Welsh club, he told me that he couldn't remember ever attending a match anywhere in England where he hadn't been called a sheepshagger (for those of you unfamiliar with football banter, this is the preferred term of abuse for all football supporters from Wales, due to the Principalities large farming community). Does it bother him? Not at all. It is all part of the fun. As expected this was an integral part of the Watford chanting. Other chants included "We pay your benefits" and "Cardiff is a small town in Asia". The Cardiff fans responded in equally robust manner.
Watford FC fans had to endure years of homophobic chanting, due to Elton John being chairman. He once recounted how, after an expose in The Sun newspaper, he arrived in the stand at Grimsby to be greeted by 5,000 fans chanting "Don't bend down, when Eltons around, or you'll get a penis up your bum". Elton told the story on the Parkinson show in the mid 1990's. At the time he didn't seem to disturbed by this, accepting it as all part of the banter at football grounds. Given the success of Watford FC under Eltons chairmanship, one rather suspects that the Watford fans were not exactly too upset with having the only gay man in football at the helm. My suspicion is that perhaps the chanting was because the other clubs were jealous that Watford had such a high profile and generous chairman.
We have seen much coverage this week of discussion about how police should respond to hate crime against Emo's, goths and punks. By a logical extension, the police should have rounded up all of the Watford fans and carted them off to the nick. The question I asked myself was whether the "sheepshagger" abuse injured the feelings of the Cardiff City fans. At the end of the game, they emerged and got on their coaches as Watford fans walked past. I overheard on Cardiff fan observe "I've never seen so many kids at a game" in a quite friendly manner. There was no trouble and the atmosphere was fine, if raucous. There was no huge police cordon, despite all of the banter and chanting in the stadium.
So is it ok to call fans of Welsh clubs "sheepshaggers"? My Welsh friend passed it off as all part and parcel of the experience of being a fan and was of the opinion that it is good humoured. Generally when a disaster befalls a team, their locality or a well known fan, the banter will cruelly highlight this. Many people unfamiliar with football read too much into it. What are football supporters really like? Last season we saw what happened when Bolton Wanderers player Fabrice Muamba had a heart attack on the pitch vs Spurs. When the seriousness of the situation became apparent, the banter stopped and gave way to genuine concern on all sides of the ground. Another example is the reaction of supporters from all clubs to the Hillsborough report.
I doubt any Cardiff City fan is offended by the chants. I would not be surprised if in years to come such chants are deemed "hate crimes" and banned. The children that the Cardiff fan noted at the Watford game could well grow up into a world where you are given a list of acceptable, government approved chants for matches. Maybe the fan of the future will merely be allowed to chant "The coffee bars in Cardiff are only slightly better than average" or "We all agree, that the referee would benefit from a refresher course".
I used to go to matches in the 1970's when the atmosphere at many matches was far more oppressive. Away standing sections were the scene of major fights during matches. A wrong turn on the way to a match could lead to a serious good hiding. Racist chanting was an everyday occurrence and admitting that you were a football fan in polite company was almost like holding up a sign saying "I'm a thug". In the 1980's we had a succession of terrible tragedies, Bradford, Hillsborough and Heysel being the worst. Football had to face up to its issues. The Sheepshagger chants are the last relic of those days, along with small gangs who travel the length of the country for punch ups outside the ground.
I daresay that the obscene chanting does put some people off going, especially those with children. When I consider the question is it OK to chant that Welsh fans are sheepshaggers, I honestly don't know the answer. It doesn't offend me. I doubt it offends the Welsh fans and I doubt that 95% of the crowd gave it a second thought. The atmosphere would have been far less entertaining without it. But then there is the fact that at the end of the day it is an extremely thin end of a very fat wedge. Logically there is no difference between that and any other form of racist abuse. The fact that no one in the crowd seriously thinks that residents of a major city such as Cardiff spend their evenings shagging sheep and it is all banter is irrelevent.
So in a logical, sensible world, we'd ban all such chanting. And the world will become a very dull and sterile place.