A few minutes before hearing of the death of Gary Speed, I had been browsing Twitter and following the timeline of a young man who had been revelling in the minor celebrity created by his personal abuse of the footballer, Michael Owen. I’m going to publish his message to Owen here, in the hope that it offends you in the same way it offended me.
“you crying little welsh munich cunt. It happens week in week out you big headed fucking midget!!!”
There have been much worse examples than this of course. The bloke’s timeline contains a string of friends all congratulating him on being noticed. One lad laughs about the time he insulted Gary Neville’s children to their face. John Hartson finally snapped and began to make public the many abusive tweets that he receives, some of them aimed a cancer-stricken kids that he supported. Last year, Robbie Savage was forced to confront somebody who had ridiculed the suffering of his father from Parkinson-disease.
The apparent suicide of Gary Speed was incomprehensible to us. Here was a man who had it all. Wealth, success, peer-respect, the looks of a film star, and the love and admiration of his nation and his family. It is always dangerous to assume of course, but it appears that Speed had been battling a dark illness behind those smiles and that wink. One can only imagine the torture that he must have been going through as he faced the cameras. My point is that if Gary Speed, with a promising future, and a glowing past can feel that despondent, then who knows which other sportsmen, which other people that we meet in our lives are also suffering personal hell?
We have come to treat professional football as a moral vacuum. A modern stadium is an anything-goes arena where thousands of people sing about Sol Campbell dying of AIDS, and individuals tell David Beckham that they hope his young son dies of cancer. The impunity from judgement as we stray from from decency goes way back. I remember songs being sung about a team of young footballers dying at Munich as far back as 1974 . I remember Manchester United, Bristol City and Chelsea fans laughing at the death of children in Aberfan, and Chelsea also celebrated the impending death of the comatosed boxer Johnny Owen. Cardiff are no angels either. A group of fans dressed as firemen went in fancy dress to Bradford some time after the tragedy at Valley Parade, and just last season there were chants of ‘Istanbul’ at Elland Road. Back in the 1990s, Cardiff fans used to make a hissing sound and sing “Gas a Jack” as they mocked the lonely suicide of Welsh international Alan Davies via a tube through his car window.
I’m just tired of it all. I’m utterly weary of the whole sordid fucking charade. These are not murderers and villains, they are just athletes. (Although ironically, if your new signing happens to be a rapist or a wife-beater, that’s OK, because ‘it’s what he does on the pitch that counts’). Abuse isn’t funny or victimless. That referee you scream at, the injury-prone attacker you ridicule, the passionate badge-kissing captain of your ‘rivals’ – they’re all real people, and you just don’t know what is happening in their fragile lives.
Whenever tragedy occurs in football, we all take a little reflection, we shake hands, we talk about a football family, and within a few months it starts all over again. I remember escaping a beating at the hands of a mob of BNP supporters in Darlington in 1991 because Hillsborough was still fresh in the minds of everybody. My would-be attackers were full of self-pity that Hillsborough had changed everything they enjoyed; the conflict, the abuse, the violence. It didn’t take long for the antagonism to start again.
Recent years have seen the excuse of ‘banter’ rolled out as a justification for personal abuse. I used to have a lot of ‘banter’ with the lads. I remember one hysterical occasion on a trip to Barnet in 1991 when a good mate of mind mocked the fact that I would be spending Christmas alone that year. I retorted with some well-aimed insults about nepotism easing his path through life and we didn’t speak for the next ten years. Still, it was only banter, eh? Nobody gets hurt.
Banter often leads to more serious abuse. Danish referee Martin Hansson was the man in charge when Thierry Henry handballed Ireland out of the 2010 World Cup. He went on to make this stark, illuminating film which detailed the threats of violence he received after that evening when he failed to spot Henry’s deceit. I find it deeply sad that we demonise well-meaning individuals. Who knows the real mental state of that person walking out to start the match? In 2009, German goalkeeper Robert Enke ended his own life, and recently German referee Babak Rafati attempted suicide before a German Bundesliga game.
Of course statistically, there are bound to be people in football affected by mental disease. But in other walks of life those sufferers would hopefully be cared for, understood and respected. In football the media and the public are merciless in their hounding and de-humanising of people involved in the game. I watched guiltily silent last week as an opposition goalkeeper whose Father had died at a young age was tormented loudly about his mental health by guffawing home supporters. The stress levels must be extraordinary on a diseased mind. We need to stop abusing people who play and officiate at football, because even if we’re prepared to abandon common decency when we walk through gates of our local colosseum, we don’t know what damage we are doing to those who entertain us.
As audible racism has been forced off the modern menu of the bigot, so homophobia has taken its place. I rarely go to a match where the away goalkeeper is not derided as a ‘rent boy’ or a ‘faggot’. On Wednesday evening, Cardiff City visit Brighton, the gay-friendly town whose football supporters have become the butt (LOL LMFAO) of a thousand unfunny homosexuality-related chants. I’m pretty sure those chants will be heard on Wednesday too.
I remember going to Torquay with Cardiff in the early 1990′s and the subject of the ‘banter’ that day was a homosexual striker called Justin Fashanu. The abuse was remorseless and unremitting, as it was wherever he played. Fashanu would kill himself a few years later, an indirect victim of ignorance and intolerance. Thankfully things are beginning to change – a group of Millwall fans were arrested for homophobic chanting at Brighton recently. And as they left the court, they seemed bewildered. ‘Banter!, they protested. “It was only ‘banter’. A harmless piece of fun.”