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Is football fan behaviour at tipping point?

Football: a game for all?
Fan behaviour has been the subject of recent controversy in England. | Credit: Connor Spake

Football fans can make easy targets of ire, but throughout the last year the sport has shown its ugly side. What can be done about football matches marred by foul language, encroachments and abuse?

Human nature

Poole Town FC Chairman Chris Reeves sits across from me in a quiet meeting room, tucked away beneath the offices of the law firm, where he is a consultant.

Reeves, like his players, has to ply his trade alongside his footballing commitments. He greets me with a warm smile and I promise not to take too much of his time, a gesture he rejects happily.

Poole have a tremendous vocal support for a club in the Southern Premier Division South, the 7th tier of the English football pyramid.

“People use language at football matches they wouldn’t use elsewhere”

Yet Chairman Reeves believes the growth of support in the last few seasons has been marred by a rise in foul language.

“Regrettably it seems to be part of human nature. People use language at football matches they wouldn’t use elsewhere.”

“I’m just so disappointed”

Reeves says the rise in swear-based chanting has removed some of the unique identity the clubs’ fans had previously.

“The support we’re getting now is unbelievable, its fantastic and uplifting for the players. But there is the foul language creeping in and I’m just so disappointed by that.”

What strikes me most during my chat with Reeves is his bafflement at fans who abuse opposition players from the sides of the pitch.

“We all know how horrible it is to lose a game of football”

He believes that the Dolphins should strive to be humble in victory and defeat alike.

Reeves tells me about an opposition goalkeeper whom Poole fans had directed their gloating at, following a match that the Tatnam-based club had won.

“That is unacceptable. We all know how horrible it is to lose a game of football and we should respect that feeling.”

It could be that this kind of behaviour at non-league grounds gives encouragement to other fans. If this behaviour becomes accepted on our rougher, smaller pitches, then it becomes acceptable on our Premier League carpet-like surfaces too.

Reeves says he does have a self-censored favourite he wishes the crowd would bring back as Poole battle for 5th place and a playoff spot.

“He kicks to the left, he kicks to the right, the [blank] goalie, his kicking is shhhhhhhhhh. I just thought that one was great.”

Sacred white line

Crossing the white line should be strictly reserved from players and officials. This isn’t just a law, it should be sacred to any fan who truly cares about their team.

And yet pitch invasions are popping up at an alarmingly frequent rate. Just this year we’ve had the disgraceful Jack Grealish incident, where the Aston Villa midfielder was punched from behind by a fan, as well as Chris Smalling shoved by a fan during a match against Arsenal.

The authorities came down hard on these incidents, with the Birmingham City pitch invader receiving a 14-week prison sentence and Arsenal charged by the FA for ‘failing to ensure that fans conducted themselves in an orderly fashion’.

Bournemouth are yet to be charged for the away fan pitch encroachment following Newcastle’s last-minute equaliser at Vitality Stadium in March, but five men were charged.

The group were subsequently tried and fined at Poole Magistrates Court this week.

These incidents are not only high-profile, but on the rise.

“Everyone involved in staging a game deserves to enjoy the highest safety standards”

So much so, that the FA, EFL and Premier League saw fit to publish a joint statement recently, condemning the behaviour.

“English football has worked hard over many years to ensure that our grounds are safe places. Everyone involved in staging a game deserves to enjoy the highest safety standards and we are determined to prevent these standards from being undermined”.

“Anyone who attends a match to threaten this principle, either from the stands or by entering the field of play, will face the strongest possible sanctions”.

One can only hope these strong sentiments are echoed in their punishments. A strong response is surely the only sure way to stamp these issues out of our game.

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