Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Not a Grand Day Out

There is a five year old boy from Sheffield. He doesn't share the natural enthusiasm for football that his Dad had at the same age. Then again, some children get into football later in life, some don't at all. Onlookers might say that his Dad has spent his time since August in a season long attempt to put him off football by taking him  to Bramall Lane, but a ten pound season ticket makes it a low cost investment of time and money. Slotted in have been sporadic visits with his Mum, a season ticket holder at the Reebok Stadium, a much happier place to be.

Although his enthusiasm was a slow burner, he had, for the last few weeks, a big day out to look forward to. The FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. The wonderment of a trip to a huge stadium, the sense of occasion, a positive riot of colour and noise. Something to live long in the memory. It may well do, but for all the wrong reasons and not for what happened between 4pm and 6pm.

Thanks to the M1 being closed, it was a hot an arduous journey to the capital, although early encounters with opposition support at Oxford Services witnessed over exuberance and daftness as opposed to any menace. A train of cars of red and white and blue snaking down the M40 and A40 until, nearly two hours later and close to five hours after setting off, the car bedecked with scarves and flags entered the final mile or so to the stadium. A mother and son's road trip, as much a part of the day's experience as the match itself. Wide eyed wonderment at a trip to "London", not realising that it is the northern suburbs and not the tourist London of schoolbooks and television.

"It's no different to Sheffield Mummy!".

Passing pubs, the first overspilling with raucous Bolton fans and then another populated by Stoke fans. Approaching traffic lights, although the lights were green, the car is stopped to allow some Stoke fans to cross the road.

At that point several drunken Potters fans preceded to start thumping on the windows of the car, hurling abuse at the passengers within. Irrelevant to them that it is a young woman and her small son. They then proceed to do what 70mph driving couldn't achieve and rip the car flags from the windows of the car taunting their victims with their trophies. A bit of a verbal set to ensues as the driver points out her young son is in the back of the car, which does nothing to stop the idiots' taunts. Eventually a female Stoke supporter grabs hold of one of the flags from her fellow fan and returned the remains apologetically as the idiots continued to taunt and bait and the car moves on.

Shortly after, on arriving at the stadium, the young boy incredibly upset continues to shake and quiver. This should have been the time to soak up that atmosphere on Wembley Way, the colour, the feeling of being at a special event, but that wasn't to be. The young boy didn't want to be outside the stadium as "those Stoke fans might get us Mummy".

He knew that it wasn't until he got into the ground that he would feel happier, surrounded by fellow Bolton supporters. They took some photos to remember the day, but all show a boy whose eyes are looking anywhere but the camera, darting around, clearly worrying about what might happen next. 

What happened next was a football match, but the day had been tarnished long before the Wanderers' capitulation. His team were soundly thrashed, some said they never turned up, yet events off the pitch left the little boy upset, scared and wishing he hadn't turned up either.

During the match the views of those who oppose the F.A.'s avaricious decision to hold semi-finals at Wembley were further vindicated as supporter segregation went out of the window in the country's showpiece stadium. The inability to restrict Stoke fans from the Club Wembley seats around the Bolton end leading to exchanges of "pleasantries" and missiles with the Bolton fans below. Stewards looking on impassively. Young fans looking on, wondering why?

"They smell of pubs, of Wormwood Scrubs and too many right wing meetings"

Society is cursed by a number of drink fuelled, emotionally crippled men who get their kicks in -perverse ways, Sadly football just seems to exacerbate the worse aspects of their behaviour. We have all seen it at football, instances of threatening behaviour from sinewy pit bulls, veins bulging from neck and forehead, more often than not directed at their own breed from the other side of the club divide. Their kids, the next generation, giving it the big one at the opposition pups. Then there are those, a minority I know, who take it to another level. Revelling in threatening their fellow supporters who don't share their opinion, with few qualms about threatening women and young children.

In taking your children to football you know that you are potentially exposing them to unsavoury behaviour. If you are sensible you can shield them from a lot of what happens. You know where to go pre-match, where to sit, avoiding the potential pressure points. You set their moral code, so they know right from wrong.

The swearing passes them by for a while, although you know you will have to cross that bridge in time and then it will most probably be as much to do with what they hear at school as at football. You can explain why the police are arresting people and dragging them out of the ground. You can explain that the reason the Millwall fans are marching across the seats arms outstretched offering out the home support is because they are naughty and a bit sad that they aren't winning.

But how do you explain what happened on Sunday afternoon? Before the match, before the emotions run high, before the real anger and frustration potentially manifests itself.

You would think that a Bolton v Stoke semi-final, a massive game for both fans, with little inter-club rivalry, would be a safe environment for a young boy - not least for the fact he was with his Mum. Even when a friend, the day before, reported a nasty and at times violent atmosphere at the City - United derby it did little to change opinion.

It is a sad indictment on society that some people consider the behaviour that 5 year old boy witnessed and suffered as acceptable, with no retraction or embarrassment. Even in sober post-match reflection you cannot imagine their opinion changing.

Come Saturday the opportunity will be there to join his Dad at Bramall Lane. If he doesn't want to go, I'll understand why. He may choose not to follow football. After Sunday you wouldn't blame him. He may change his mind several times as is the want of young boys. Whatever happens que sera, sera.



  1. The saddest indictment of the whole thing is that it doesn't surprise me. Depressing. The most pathetic thing of all is that the Stoke fans involved were probably blokes in the 30s and 40s with kids of their own. I just hope this won't end up being your son's abiding memory of football.

  2. I am a Bolton fan who went to the game and along with Michael, I am upset that this is not a surprise to me.

    It is important that this is not an attack on Stoke fans and their behavior, as from my experience of the day, the Bolton fans were at least as badly behaved. And to say that their behavior was a result of the upsetting scoreline would be incorrect, as I have seen it far too often this year, and I believe there is an ugly side growing back into football. I just pray that the usually incompetent FA are brave enough to do something about it and save the "Beautiful game"

  3. This isn't just Bolton and Stoke. Had the same at an MKDons match with a group of opposition fans shouting obscenities at my 5yr old son whose offence was to wear face paint and a full kit ... Excellent article
    For me, it's not about lack of segration more about some of the mindless idiots that still see the game as exempt from any normal moral code.

  4. I sincerely hope your son feels happy enough to attend this weekend's game. In terms of being that scared and unsettled at such a young age, the only reasonable analogy I can think of is the shock and pain that comes from falling off your bike for the first time as a child. A previously pleasurable experience suddenly seems dangerous and frightening. Your parents say the best thing to do is to get back on. Hopefully, he retains enough of his enjoyment of football not to let this horrible incident put him off; goodness knows he's got every reason not to want to though.

  5. Completely agree with everything said in this article - especially the bit about segregation in the Club Wembley seats. The Bolton fans surrounding me pleaded with the stewards to eject the offending Stoke fans who had taken to launching missiles and abuse at us, only to be told 'We can't throw them out - we don't know which ones are the culprits'.
    Utter tosh - a bad day made even worse...