FIRST things first: I’m NOT a rugby fan (at least I wasn’t), writes MARK SPENCE.
Make no bones about it, I love football way more than is probably healthy. From the first time I clapped eyes on Ian Rush’s weasel-like physique terrorising defences the length and breadth of Europe I knew this game was for me and Liverpool were my team. The noise, the rivalry, the skill and even the kits (god, remember when footy kits actually looked good?) had me hooked from a very young age.
Conversely, all the memories I had of rugby, until recently, were unrelentingly sour ones. Growing up in Belfast in the 80s-90s, rugby was an indication of class for me. It was simple: if you went to secondary school, chances were you came from a working-class background so you played, and were wholeheartedly a disciple of, football. If you went to grammar school, you were, for the most part, from a middle to upper class family so you played, and were devoted to, rugby. While we’d spend a summer kicking a battered ball up and down the street until yer ma called you in for tea, or the light faded, the grammar school types were off on a ‘rugby tour’ — whatever that meant. It was an alien world all that rugger business.
University really cemented my initial impressions. My experience of rugby back then was watching pissed up, mangle-faced brutes running around the campus with their cocks out, collars turned up, defecating in pint glasses in the Student Union bar on a Friday night (or any other night for that matter) or sitting at the back of lectures pretending to hump each other. So, the thought of going to watch these clowns continually run head first into like-minded, cauliflower-eared, thick-headed, gap-toothed cretins really wasn’t my thing.
Now, maybe I was prejudiced back then. Maybe my opinion was coloured by the actions of a few. Maybe. What I definitely didn’t do though was give the fans a chance. You couldn’t have paid me to go to a rugby match back then. Well, I have a confession to make. I went to the rugby recently and loved every bit of it. So much so, it’s coloured my view of our beautiful game. Let me explain.
A friend offered me a couple of tickets to the Six Nations in Cardiff last weekend. Wales were playing Ireland, it sounded like it could be fun, the Reds weren’t playing until the Monday night and I was up for it. More than that I was intrigued because, I have to admit, I’ve often cast an admiring glance at how rugby fans conduct themselves. Now, I’m sure there are examples of when rugby fans have let themselves down but, in my opinion, these incidents appear very few and far between. Certainly, the rugby going experience doesn’t ever seem to be regularly tempered with running any sort of gauntlet at a rival ground for example.
We made our way into Cardiff city centre on a balmy Saturday afternoon and it was apparent there was only one thing that mattered: the rugby. The streets were adorned with Six Nations flags, fans mixed with each other, young and old, men and women. Cliched as it may read there was a genuine sense of carnival sprinkled with respect about the place. Sure there was ‘banter’, if you like, but it was all good-natured and there was a distinct lack of poison in the air. These people were actually enjoying each other’s company. It was bizarre. Now, I know some people will disagree but you don’t get that at football. You just don’t. Let me give you a personal recent example of fans mixing on the way to a game.
I went to the Man City match at the start of the month with a friend. We parked up in our usual spec near Anfield Cemetery before making the short trip to the ground. As we walked through the cemetery itself a handful of visiting City fans were swaggering ahead of us: all cagoules and attitude. Noticing us, and our colours, one of them, beetroot-red, veins popping, eyes on stalks, turned and started a ‘conversation’ with my mate that went like this,
City fan: “How far is the stadium from here?”
Mate: “About 10 minutes away — depending on how quickly you walk, like.”
City fan: “I’m absolutely whizzing off my tits so I’ll be there in five. So you’re Liverpool are you? How did you feel then?”
Mate: “What do you mean?”
City fan: “How did you feel when Gerrard slipped over and f***ed your season? Yaya would never have done that. He’s f***ing class, Yaya. Gerrard’s f***ing shit. Mate.”
At this point the geared-up individual was told to reign it in by his mates before they all “ended up underneath a tombstone of their own”.We had no intention of engaging in any sort of physical confrontation, to be honest, but there was an assumption something was going to happen. Sadly, that attitude for me has become the norm. There wasn’t going to be any trouble, but if I’m honest, I was expecting some and they clearly were. Anyway, back to Cardiff.
It was time to hit the pub. I assumed, much like the footy, there’d be certain segregated ale houses. If there’s any hint of truth around the stereotypes about the Welsh and Irish nation’s drinking habits surely putting them together with a few bevvys is bound to be a powder keg situation? It’ll go off at least once I thought. Wrong.
Walking into the boozer the first thing that caught my eye was the wall-to-wall, shoulder to shoulder Welsh and Irish fans in facepaint, respective shirts, wigs etc side by side, laughing and joking together. Typically, I managed to spill a chap’s pint almost right away. He was a big bloke, with lashings of gold jewellery and gnarled knuckles too. His response? “No problem, mate.” Eh? I’ve, literally, seen grown men, fans of the same team no less, pulled apart over the same scenario at the football. After a pint I became increasingly curious. Maybe this place is a one off so we headed further into town where there were more fans, more flags and a lot more booze to sink before the game kicked off at 2.30pm.
By 2pm our party were, admittedly, fairly well-oiled and there still wasn’t a hint of grief in the offing. The fans went all out with the singing too and I mean actual singing. No generic, bilious, scathing, snidey jibes revelling in one nation’s social or economic difficulties. None of that. No chance. This lot were belting out near note perfect stirring renditions of traditional anthems with pride. Hearing ‘Land Of My Fathers’ sung by the Welsh in a pub applauded by the Irish really was quite something. That was when it struck me: there was no tension. It was a big game (from what I can gather) but while there was a lot of emotion or desire and no shortage of rivalry,it wasn’t spilling over into any, well, silliness.
By 2.15pm it was time to head to the Millenium (been said a lot but, for my money, a far superior stadium to Wembley). Once in our seats the day’s biggest revelation reared its head. All the fans were still sitting side by side, drinking. Sports fans beside each other consuming alcohol while watching the game — what a concept. An egg-shaped ball rather than a spherical one — in the same stadium — means the Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol, etc) Act 1985 doesn’t apply. Work that one out.
When the Welsh fans started singing I thought there’d be an uneasiness amongst the Irish contingent but there wasn’t. They just sang back. The atmosphere was brilliant. It was passionate and emotional but there was no hate, no vulgarity and no violence either spoken, sung or otherwise. There were families there genuinely enjoying the spectacle unfolding in front of them.
A Welsh player went down writhing in pain at one point. There was literally not a single voice among the 70,000 or so fans raised in anger about time wasting or feigned injury. When the player was carried off both sets of fans applauded him. Both sets.
Wales went on to beat Ireland 23-16 on the day. Surely, I thought, when the fans all spill onto the streets together at the same time there’d be chaos. Nope. What about in the pub after the game? Trouble? Nope. The fans stood side by side again, with the Irish acknowledging and accepting defeat graciously while the Welsh, although thoroughly enjoying the win over their Celtic neighbours, showed restraint and humility befitting of a grand sporting occasion.
All of this really begs the question: why would I assume things should be any different? Are the people that go to the rugby really that different to the fans that regularly attend football? Now, obviously, I didn’t carry out an in-depth social or demographic investigation but from speaking to people there they were mostly all football fans and nobody could quite explain it. There’s a disconnect somewhere. Could football fans go to the game and sit side by side? Can they have a bevvy at the game without it being a bloodbath? Why are the authorities so convinced it can’t be done? (See Merseyside Police et al re the derby at Goodison). I’ve seen the proof that it can — can’t football follow suit or are we so ingrained in the idea that as fans we can’t stand side by side, watch a game, and be smart? All the football fans I know are decent, law-abiding citizens. I don’t know any hooligans.
It’s not just me either. To get a bit of background I spoke to Mark Coughlan, staff writer at Sport magazine, a regular rugby goer and also a Crystal Palace fan:
“I’ve spent years listening to rugby and football fans moan about each other, but having been to hundreds of matches of both shape of ball, I’m hopefully in a good position to judge both.
“The problem is comparisons are quite hard to make, but in modern society, everyone is obsessed with judging everything on the same level. Having said that, on a basic level, there is one thing that football fans can learn from rugby: supporting your team doesn’t have to mean hating the fan who doesn’t.”
So what makes rugby so special then? Don’t the fans ever clash? How come the atmosphere seems to be so fundamentally less vitriolic than footy?
“The major appeal of a rugby atmosphere — before, during and after — is the mixing of fans in pubs and in the stands. Yes, it’s fun to sing about and talk up your own team, but the enjoyment is in taking the mickey out of one another and singing songs back and forth. Football has a much more hardcore following, but it seems to boil down to this belief that everyone who doesn’t support your team is wrong. If football fans could learn to love their team, but appreciate that the guy wearing the wrong colour shirt nearby doesn’t actually affect the action on the pitch, then the terraces would be a much happier place.
“You’ll have seen it first hand in terms of that interaction and fun, but it’s hard to pick out much else that separates the two sports. I think the essential point is that going to the rugby is an all-day event, which involves the build-up, the game itself and the enjoyment afterwards. I very very rarely drive to a rugby event because it is a social thing, whereas at football, I am there for those 90 minutes and nothing else.”
Don’t the Welsh and Irish hate the English though? Isn’t there a whole thing about not minding who you lose to as long as it’s not the English?
“In terms of examples, I have an absolute bucketload. I think the best recent one comes from last Saturday (Wales v Ireland). After the game — before which my Welsh mate and myself stood arm in arm and sang both anthems, then shook hands and wished each other luck — myself and my mate headed to a busy sports bar in the centre of Cardiff to watch the Scotland v England game. While there, we happened across a group of three English lads, in full England regalia, who had travelled to Cardiff to watch the Wales v Ireland game, have a laugh and then watch the England game on TV. The next hour involved sing songs from Welsh, Irish and the English fans inside and outside the pub, and pretty much made us miss most of the second half of the game that was on TV because we were having such a laugh.”
What about when you go abroad following rugby?
“One other example would be the amount of French kit I always come back from when I go to see my club side (Munster rugby) play abroad. It’s always a weekend away with my dad, my brothers and a few uncles etc, which involves a few days on the piss and a game somewhere in France. At least three separate occasions have seen the night end with 15-20 of us around a table (half us, half a group of French lads) having a sing song and a few drinks, followed by swapping of jerseys. So I have about three or four different shirts of random French clubs at home, and my various Munster shirts are now dotted around random French houses.”
So there you have it. Now, don’t get me wrong, I won’t be sacrificing my devotion to the Reds and I’ll certainly take football over rugby any day of the week still but, really, there’s a lot we, as football fans, can learn from rugby. If you get the chance to go and check out a bit of egg chasing I’d advise you to give it a go. It certainly opened my eyes.
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What about the players respect for the ref? The whole culture is so much more positive. I work in a place where people play both sports and the behaviour of the same people at different sports is remarkable. Football games involve laughing at the team you support when they make a mistake while rugby games are songs and cheering start to finish.
That’s really interesting and does ask more questions than it answers. Obviously, while reading it I was trying to answer, in my head, the questions posed.
I immediately thought it was down to the ‘make up’ of the fans. Not so much the colour of lipstick they wear but their social background but I remembered a scene coming out of City’s ground a few years ago. A lad in front of me had a Liverpool scarf on which everyone honed in on and inadvertently brought us on top because they scrutinised everyone around him. So, we were suddenly getting flanked by two lines of lads about 30 in number and waiting for that inevitable moment when one broke rank and steamed into us. Bizarrely, or maybe down to the lack of eye contact from us they didn’t do it but a bloke of about 80 attacked the one in a scarf with a walking stick and I mean properly attacked him. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. He clearly hated Liverpool fans with a real passion.
I wondered whether it was almost conditioned into football fans, as in, we just naturally associate football with rivalry. What I find interesting is that I’ve seen a fair few fights at football and I’ve never been offended. It’s almost like watching the gladiators of Roman times. Not quite cheering them on but admiring the spectacle. Yet, when I saw fighting at a cricket match I was appalled and really angry at them for ruining everyone’s vibe.
The reality is it’s simply a case of football draws people of that disposition. sometimes they like cricket too but rarely rugby. If you look at Britain’s history we’re quite a fiery island and that gets passed on genetically. Football seems to be the tool to express those tribal, aggressive tendencies. I say that because I believe there’s only two type of people who fight at football – the firms, or organised hooligans, who are lads drawn to a way of life that only football can offer / satisfy and rugby certainly can’t and lads who are fairly thick from deprived backgrounds who have anger issues and are best avoided around alcohol. They will definitely be drawn to football more than rugby. I know we don’t like to stereotype these days but that’s how it is. The vast, vast majority wouldn’t dream of fighting at football and the truth is, you could pick out the ones who would by appearance. Although the image of football fans as violent does have truth in it, by percentage it’s tiny.
I’ve said before on here, when growing up our street fought the next street. Other times our half of the estate fought the other half, then our estate fought the estate on the other side of the river. Our town fought the next town. Being on the border English would fight Welsh and I’ve seen British v Spanish in bars abroad. Fighting and rivalry is part of life in this country for certain ‘types’. The same as when Liverpool play Everton or Utd. If I watch it in ‘certain pubs’ of ‘certain areas’ then the pub will take sides. Mates will fall out for the day. There’s not always trouble but the pub will feel like a pressure cooker that could go pop at any time. I thought it had improved but I heard recently the same battles are still being waged, locally, by teenagers today. So, I think the bottom line is football’s unlucky. It attracts certain types. Our perceptions are that football is the sport to go if you want rivalry and I’d even go as far to say we’re conditioned to accept it more at football and even expect it. The problem is society’s problem not football’s but football is the chosen medium for the people who are that way inclined. It’s fairly entrenched too. Almost a way of life for some.
I’m a lifelong LFC fan but my main sporting love is Rugby Union and attend games at Kingsholm (Gloucester’s ground) whenever I can.
You do get idiots, which crowd doesn’t? but by and large a Rugby crowd is self policing.
One great memory for me was when we played Munster in Gloucester and I walked into my regular boozer to find myself surrounded by away fans.
No sooner had I walked in then the first of many pints was bought for me and so began an epic pub crawl around the town before and after the game.
Great days and highly recommend getting to your local club and experiencing a game.
Great read and comments,
Robin as usual nails some great points,
I grew up in the shadow of Thomand park (Munster) but went to a real strong GAA playing school but yet it was Football that grabbed me,
Mainly due to sound of Anfield & other grounds coming through the radio in the early eighties,
I had been to some Rugby/GAA matches but they never had that same intense atmosphere that you only find at the footie, although as I have got older I have come to love going to these type of events because you can be more relaxed and tend to end up drinking with and sitting next to some great characters from the rivals,
I have had this type of debate with friends on numerous occasions as quite a few are Rugby only types and just don’t get how I can enjoy both,
we once went to an Irish Footie game and not only could they not get beer but they were astonished at the different type of punter that showed up compared what they were use to,
I literally pissed myself at there reaction but they went to Rugby playing schools and grew up playing that game in quite a sanitised atmosphere whereas I grew up playing footie in tough estates with boys lashing into cider & glue on the sidelines,
I don’t think it’s an Irish thing necessarily but go to an Ireland football game and you’ll have the ‘rugby’ experience. No violence, no extreme reactions to losing (there wouldn’t want to be) and loads of friendly interaction with the opposition fans. But you’ll also get the manic, unconditional passion that only football is capable of provoking on any kind of scale IMO.
You won’t get beer in the stadium and Ireland football games either but it’s probably good to allow a bit of a drying out period in between the pre-match and post-match free for alls, particularly at away matches…
England come to Dublin to play a friendly in June, and there’ll be loads of arseholes singing anti-IRA songs. And a few other arseholes might bite back and sing ‘pro’ IRA songs. But is that a ‘football’ thing? I don’t think it’s as simple as that but there’s no doubt that especially in England a certain strand of anti-socialism has found somewhere to attach itself to.
Plenty of rugby fans self consciously identify themselves as rugby fans by pointing out what football is not and has not. In the Irish context, this is little more than social self-casting IMO. Which I find as objectionable as the murkier elements of following a football team.
Interesting article and i don’t disagree with any of it. I have always been a sports mad idiot, and while probably for reasons of upbring (grammar school educated blah blah blah) i have watched more rugby live than i have football, i follow football more closely. My two favourite teams in sport are The Reds and Ireland’s rugby team.
One thing to bear in mind. Whereas i definitely don’t condone hooligan like behaviour, i do feel there is a place for the deep rooted passion you get in football. You don’t see grown men cry while watching rugby for example. You do in football, regularly. Nor in rugby do you see the ecstatic scenes you witness when, for example, Liverpool win the Champions league or score against Chelsea. Maybe because the passion runs so deep, the vitriol and aggression is an unavoidable side affect and even if it is not unavoidable, could it arguably be a lesser experience without that backdrop?
As i said above, i see more live rugby than football, partly because i am a bit lazy and so rarely travel away. I have no real interest in watching teams i don’t support and so because i live in London my options are therefore reduced to watching LFC at London away games or Ireland when they play at Twickenham. So maybe because it is such a rare occurrence, but for me, watching Liverpool at Stamford bridge is a totally different experience than watching Ireland at Twickenham.
Having to watch yourself on the way to the ground, singing songs with aggression, both about your own club but taking the piss out of the opposing, it’s just electric. There is nothing like it. Especially at Stamford bridge, especially when we beat them! Without the aggressive, highly partisan element, you wouldn’t have this, and my question is – would you miss it?
So maybe it is a case of careful of what you wish for, or maybe its just me. As someone who rarely goes to see the Reds play, i am not tired of it (the vitriolic element), and while i am very aware of the tension that could break at any stage, i haven’t actually witnessed the ugly side of it when it does break.
And don’t get me wrong, i understand fully how that is something one could grown very tired of, very quickly.
Great post Tom.
Couldn’t agree more, football could learn a lot from rugby, not only the fans interaction but also how the game is run. Yellow cards used in both, penalties, rugby 10 minutes in the sin bin in THAT game, football, accumulative but none in that match. Try / goal doubtful, rugby tv review, correct decision after 30 secs, football, after minutes of arguing, what the ref thinks he saw, often incorrect decision. My son supports Liverpool and goes to most home games, I support United and went home and away for years, we have friendly banter, watch games of both teams together. I don’t know why there is such a difference but take some comport from knowing that there is still some trouble it far less than the 60’s & 70’s
Sod ’em both and watch cricket.
I’m a Scouser born and bred, but have lived in Gloucestershire for many years. This is rugby country and I’ve had this discussion many times.
I’ve been to Kingsholm too, Gloucester v Bath.
I think that’s like Man Utd v Liverpool. I’ll never forget Mike Tindal running through the crowd at the end to give an interview, that’s like Luis Suarez running up the Kop.
Here’s my take.
Rugby is nowhere near as vital, as personal and as passionately supported at football.
The crowds rugby gets are tiny compared to football games.
Gloucester Kingsholm 16,000
Liverpool anfield 46,000
Twickerham 72,000 5 times a year
Old Trafford 76,000 30+ times a year
Going to watch rugby is basically a day out with your mates
Going to watch your football team is a must win or else experience.
Maybe it’s the points system, leading 12:3 doesn’t quite have the tension of leading 1:0
I think rugby fans enjoy NOT being like footy fans
Compared to football very few people support rugby union.
The 6 nations are the closet thing to a European tournament as they can get, with France and Italy making up the numbers
Even the rugby World Cup is a bit misleading 14 teams some like samoa, cook island and Fiji, hardly world powers
Average attendance 16,000 over 28 matches.
Supporting a football team is like belonging to a family, you insult my team, you’re insulting my dad and his dad too.
With Rugby, it’s much more detached. It’s a party atmosphere, no one is really arsed who wins
I’m not sure I agree that with rugby nobody is really arsed who wins. Being marooned down here in Oz, I can tell you that when the All Blacks and Wallabies square off, the Aussies and Kiwis care very, very much.
I used to share a house with a rugby-mad Kiwi who talked me into going to a pub to watch a Bledisloe Cup match (I’m going back a few years when the Wallabies were actually capable of beating the All Blacks occasionally).
We walked into the pub and it was wall-to-wall with All Black jerseys outnumbering the Gold by about 3-1. A lot of the All Black fans were Maori boys, who have a bad rap for being a bit wild when they are on the turps.
I’m 5’6″. They were the standard Maori build of 6’4″ tall and 8′ wide and I felt safe as houses. It was a crazy match, with the Blacks scoring three tries in about the first minute, then the Wallabies coming back to hit the lead until Jonah Lomu did his irresistible force thing to score a match-winning try in the last minute. (At least, that is how I remember it!).
The thing was, while they were over the moon at winning, there was no in-your-face taunting from my new mates. Me and my mate walked out of the pub straight into a bunch of local yobs out looking for trouble. One of our new Maori mates just happened to be looking out the window, and decided to intervene: in no time at all the trouble magically disappeared.
I have been to AFL finals games – and you can believe me when I say that it really does matter who wins – where fans of both teams are mixed in together, seen my team get flogged, struck up a conversation with an opposing fan, found myself invited to ‘their’ pub for their victory piss-up and didn’t have to buy a drink all night. Even if there are ‘hard-core’ fans, the most you will get is a bit of juvenile in-your-face triumphalism. The thought of actually fighting over a sporting fixture is ridiculous.
Alas, it is only with A-League games you have to be wary of where you go before and after the match. If you see a group of lads in opposition colours – especially if they have had time to have a few drinks – you duck down the nearest side street or back out of the bar as fast as you can.
Rugby and AFL fans do care very much who wins, but perhaps they don’t judge their own self-worth by whether the team they support wins or loses?