French police use tear gas against England supporters in downtown Marseille, France, Friday, June 10, 2016. Some minor scuffles on Friday and the brief clashes late Thursday revived bitter memories of days of bloody fighting in this Mediterranean port city between England hooligans, Tunisia fans and locals of North African origin during the World Cup in 1998, and raised fears of more violence ahead of Saturday's European Championship match between England and Russia at the Stade Velodrome. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

ALL the focus was on “England”. “England fans”. What the world was witnessing in Marseille was England and England fans. Not men and women, sons and daughters. Not people.

England yobs.

England thugs.

English disease.

Dark ages.

Let the country down.

English hooligans.

English racists.

Scum.

Emotive, isn’t it? Easy to get angry about. These dickheads, going over there, representing our country, tarnishing our name. A collective feral mass. Animals.

Media — mainstream and social — jumped on the opportunity to use these labels. It dehumanises the people that have gone over to enjoy themselves. To watch football. To eat, drink and be merry. To spend time with friends and family watching the sport they love.

But forget them, it’s easier to talk about the above. So easy to look at selected pictures that feed a stereotype and watch video clips (some not even from this year, never mind this tournament) and start generalising about cause and effect. There’s been loads of it. Most of it initially blaming England fans. All of them.

Should you dare to discuss anything but “yobs” you’re defending the indefensible. Rationalising thuggery. You’ve lost your marbles, apparently.

For someone who goes to football matches on a regular basis, it’s been thoroughly depressing.

On Friday, I turned on Radio Four first thing in the morning. It’s not my usual choice to be honest. But, as much as I like him, I’d decided Shaun Keaveny on Radio Six wasn’t going to help inform on the Euro debate.

Instead of referendum talk, I got Alan Shearer. Not Alan Shearer talking football matches, which he is qualified to talk about. But Alan Shearer talking football fans, which I’d argue he’s not. He repeatedly used the word “yobs” as he reacted to news that there had been trouble overnight in Marseille. England. England and yobs. It’s always the same. It’s very sad.

I’m paraphrasing, but this was about the size of it. How many more think like that without a care for the situation? The French police perhaps? Perhaps someone could have asked them. Because what’s the point in Shearer?

He wasn’t in Marseille, he didn’t see what happened. He had no idea of who started what, when and why, nor could he offer any views on the policing. He has no insight into football supporter culture. Or, for that matter, hooligan culture. Any thoughts on Marseille fans, Alan? The city itself and its reputation? Or on the Russian ultras, Alan? How about the actual England fans, Alan, rather than the “yobs”? How many of the estimated 40,000 over there were involved in the skirmishes you gladly discussed without research? How many were aggressors in the situations referenced? How many were minding their own business and were caught up in the indiscriminate use of tear gas or the cowardly attacks of ultras bent on violence?

From the age of 15, Shearer was on the books of a professional football club. Twenty years later he hung his boots up as a multi-millionaire, briefly tried his hand at management and moved into punditry.

How many times has he travelled abroad on a budget airline to watch the club, or the country, he loves play football? How many times has been treated like a criminal simply for attending a football match? Has he been denied basic rights, like going the toilet? Has he been goaded and insulted by men in uniform? Has he been denied freedom of movement? Has he been forced to walk long distances to a football match accompanied by police on horseback? Plenty of football fans have. Including me.

Shearer was just regurgitating clichés, but he wasn’t the only one. Gary Lineker did the same. Sweeping statements galore. As I type, a panel are discussing the headlines on Sky News. None of them have set foot in France the last few days. The anchorman is saying things like, “Well, Wales fans were drinking all day and there was no trouble before their game so maybe there is something in that.”

Maybe there is. Wales are in Bordeaux. They played Slovakia. England are in Marseille and they played Russia. Entirely different situations.

I don’t for a minute think everyone that goes to England game is an angel, far from it. I don’t think everyone that goes to any football game is an angel. We can all pretend that in the bubble of our clubs these things don’t go on but that’s all we’re doing. Pretending. Anyone who has followed their team home and away over any prolonged period will have witnessed some form of hooliganism or some form of crime; whether it be fights, theft, bunking in…take your pick, it happens. All the time? No. The majority of people attending the game? Never.

At one European away I went to, I witnessed “Liverpool fans” involved in organised violence. Before the same game, other “Liverpool fans” were indiscriminately attacked by hooligans from Europe that had converged on the fixture for a fight. Are all these Liverpool fans described the same? No. Some deserved condemnation. Others were caught up in the crossfire.

By the same measure then, what it is “an England fan”? There’s been talk for three days of England fans doing this, England fans doing that. The thousands that have travelled and done absolutely nothing wrong are not the story, though. They’re just collateral in the charge to write 70-point headlines to sell papers. To get clicks.

The well behaved don’t make good mobile phone footage, either. They won’t get retweeted for evermore. They don’t attract the snappers charged with documenting trouble or make the notebooks of those searching for a story.

Unless you are out there, and out there in numbers, how can you truly tell the tale of what went on in Marseille? There’s plenty of footage across three days but what are we really watching? Thirty, 40, 50, people fighting at different locations? Who are they? Where are they from? How often do they watch football?

Some Russians charging in the ground. Others wearing MMA gloves and gum-shields outside. Are all Russians like this? Bottles thrown on the streets. Who by?

None of it’s a pleasant watch, and those on the ground who have travelled regularly suggest it is among the worst trouble for many years. But nevertheless, news by its nature will seek out the very worst of the situation. If you look for trouble or anti-social behaviour hard enough at any game you will find it. But the same can be said for a Saturday night out in any major British city.

As time has moved on since the first trouble on Friday, so have the reporting and the opinions expressed online. Now, into Sunday, there are rightly questions being asked of the police, of the city of Marseille, of UEFA and of the Russians. “England fans” have undoubtedly played a part in all this but when the blame game began there was little desire to look beyond “our” hooligans.

Simply watching the news the last few days has told its own story — and a different one from the headlines. On Friday night, “England fans” had set a bar on fire. After doing so — it seemed — the “yobs” involved then triumphantly threw missiles from the blazing backdrop to anyone who approached.

It was appalling, they said. Shocking. England should be banned, some said. All the words and phrases you would expect to be attached to this incident whizzed around cyber space within seconds. And all without establishing any actual facts.

But we can see what we can see, right? The camera doesn’t lie, right?

Well, no. Wrong. Because it’s viewed through a prism of bias. One which in so many quarters skips past judge, jury and executioner when a football fan is involved.

 

To Sky Sports’ credit, on Saturday morning they sent a reporter to the bar that was “on fire”. There was no fire. No fire damage. And while the barmaid seemed a little shaken, she confirmed nobody had been hurt in the previous night’s incident. The truth then, was a flare was thrown at fans in the bar. That provided the “flaming” backdrop beamed around the world and shared online. The fans on the receiving end had reacted to the flare, providing the moment deemed to be “yobs” indiscriminately attacking whoever dared pass by.

So what of the other images we’ve seen? What is their story? The chairs and tables being thrown. The unpalatable songs. The punches thrown and the bottles lashed. Again, all that clearly happened. But what is the context? What is the “truth”?

Of the tens of thousands from England in the city, how many engaged in this kind of behaviour? How many ran the other way scared and looked for refuge?

Could it be that the heavy-handed tactics of the French police had an impact on the mood?

Geoff Pearson, a senior lecturer in criminal law at the University of Manchester, who was a huge help to us with our Heysel coverage and has studied and written on the behaviour of football fans and advised on the policing of crowds, thought so.

He told The Guardian: “It was the most predictable violence that I’ve seen since 2007 with Manchester United fans in Roma. I was on the quayside outside the Old Vic pub when the trouble started.

“There was an initial fracas between English fans and locals over tickets at around midnight. There was then the first use of pepper spray or teargas by the police.

“Then a group of what English fans were calling Marseille ultras, but I suspect were just local gangs, turned up. There was a small confrontation. I could see two or three chairs being thrown, someone tried to tip over a table and bottles were being thrown. There was then a completely disproportionate police response.

“I met an England fan who had been hit by a baton round, and actually had it in his hand. The disturbance then went down a side alley from the quayside to the main square. That’s where most of the footage of the trouble has come from.”

Police can interact and involve themselves with crowds, identify troublemakers early and prevent problems, or they can stand off, tooled up to the nines, dressed in riot gear and react with force when a flashpoint develops. The French went for the latter by all accounts.

And how about the Russian ultras, some of whom had issued threats online in advance, or Marseille’s lunatic fringe (they are routinely referred to as France’s “wildest” club)?

None of this is to deflect blame from the dickheads that follow England. They exist. They are racist. They aren’t shy if trouble ensues. But they don’t reflect the behaviour of football fans at large, despite the clamour to talk of just that.

There is context. There are facts. So instead of the tabloid charge to tarnish every person that left England for France in the past few days, how about wider reference of them? Why not speak to Russians? To French? Why not speak to experts in the policing of crowds like Geoff Pearson?

The easy win is to blame “England”. To blame “fans”. And what’s depressing is that some of the people doing so claim to support Liverpool. Everyone is different and everyone has their own view, but anyone claiming to be a Red should surely know all about how dangerous and damaging it is to stereotype about the behaviour of all fans in any given situation.

The pissed up dope throwing bottles is easy to condemn but why are the dad and lad who just wanted to watch the game lumped in?

Reports say Marseille was the first time water cannons were used at an England game in 16 years.

Others have pointed out that despite the perceived reputation incidents such as this involving England fans are much less frequent than is being suggested.

At any major football match, fans will drink, fans will sing, fans will be boisterous, and some fans will take things too far. Plenty of England fans could and should look in the mirror and ask themselves questions about their actions over the last few days. Ditto some Russian fans, some Marseille locals, some French police and UEFA, whose management of a stadium and match is yet again in question.

It’s fine to have a conversation about this without talking about the 1980s and “the English disease”. It’s fine to highlight facts, point to context and question the actions of authorities. None of it excuses dickheads. But there are always dickheads. And other cities, other police forces and other grounds have managed to manage the dickheads just fine.

No one wants a return to the 1980s in terms of football violence. We don’t want a return to the 1980s in terms of how football fans are perceived, either. Because for the millions who go to watch football every weekend, the perception is more important than the reality. We’re not thugs. We’re not hooligans. We just like football. And watching football is not a crime.

Consent management powered by Real Cookie Banner