10 Jun 2022

By: Sport Industry Group

The end of the football season was marred by scenes of fan pitch invasions, bringing the safety of players and managers into question. Mark Lloyd, Head of Strategy at Dark Horses, looks into why football has all it needs to save itself from anti-social hooliganism.

In 447 AD, an earthquake destroyed the walls of Constantinople. With Attila the Hun and his army ready to storm the city, officials had to act fast to rebuild their defences. Surprisingly, the looming threat of death wasn’t quite enough to motivate the workers. Instead, builders were recruited from the four rival groups of chariot racing supporters - the football ultras of the Byzantine empire, if you will - with honour promised to the club that completed their section of the wall first. What had previously taken nine years to build was reconstructed in just 60 days.

This story not only tells us that ancient sports fans knew their way around a hammer and chisel, but that the protection of our collective reputation can be an incredibly powerful motivator.

As football fans, the club we support provides us with a large chunk of our identity. We don’t merely support a team, we become a part of them. “We are Manchester United fans” or simply “we are Liverpool.” The language used on matchday is geared toward the collective. “We were crap today, our defence was awful”, my dad might say at 5:45pm as we leave the Coventry Building Society Arena. We stick with our team through thick and thin. We own the failures as one, so that one day we may also own the victories.

In the last few weeks of the season, a series of high-profile acts of anti-social behaviour has challenged this sense of collective identity and ownership. Compared with 2019-20, this season saw a 36% increase in the number of incidents at games, with a 47% increase in the number of arrests (source: The Athletic). Hours of coverage and thousands of words have explored what we can do about this growing problem that threatens our national pastime, all of which miss something vital about what makes it so special in the first place.

Do we need clear and consistent punishments for offenders? Yes. Is this behaviour reflective of problems in wider society? Of course. But if we’re going to see real change in the game, and soon, then we need to also unlock the power of collectivism that is so unique to football.

During his press conference before the England internationals, Gareth Southgate echoed this: “We’re representing the country, so is everybody that travels. We should be good ambassadors for our country and leave a good impression.”

Southgate has proven himself to be an exemplary leader over the last four years and here he shows why. He understands that the behaviour we’ve seen recently, whilst clearly the fault of a small minority, is a collective problem.

A pitch invader assaulting a player changes how every fan running onto the pitch with genuine joy and excitement is viewed. Someone tearing up an Italian plaza whilst wearing an England shirt tarnishes the reputation of all travelling England fans. Online racism from an anonymous account with a club badge avatar reflects poorly on that club and all those that follow them.

Fans are understanding this more and more, demonstrable through the acts of generosity and kindness designed to offset poor behaviour. The racism received by Rashford, Saka and Sancho after the Euro 2020 Final led to an even larger outpouring of love and support for the three young lions. Billy Sharp being violently assaulted by a Nottingham Forest supporter led to other Forest fans raising money for Sharp’s chosen charity (which at the time of writing stands at just under £16k).

Those causing trouble at stadiums, phones in hand as they gleefully taunt Patrick Vieira or tear down a crossbar, are chasing a boost in social status, safe in the belief that their peer group values this kind of thing. But the rejection of anti-social behaviour and self-policing happening in the football community shows this isn’t quite the case. With the growth in anti-social behaviour comes an equally large growth in the rejection of such behaviour. The majority of fans realise their club’s reputation is on the line and, with the right encouragement, would be prepared to ostracise those that endanger it.

Like Southgate, clubs, football authorities, brands and the media need to be clear that when behaviour is perpetrated by a few bad apples, the whole batch is spoiled. If we love football for the sense of belonging and collective identity it provides, then we need to remind all fans that this is what’s at risk. We need to amplify the voices of those fans - like the Nottingham Forest fundraisers - who already protest “not at my club”. We need to engineer more opportunities for fans to come together and represent their club in positive ways. And we need to make sure these collective actions are given the right platform to outshine the destructive minority.

So let’s show those offenders currently grabbing headlines that the social status boosts they’re after aren’t to be found. And with this, create a lasting stigma around this type of behaviour that can be felt in the terraces. If channelling collective fan identity and putting honour on line worked against Attila the Hun, what chance have a handful of drunk pitch invaders got?