Not one of our own?
I had intended this blog to be something of an escapist channel from the mediocrity of modern football, however it is with a heavy heart that I recount a recent experience which brought back thoughts of the game’s past about which I did not expect to write. At a rough estimate I have been to around two hundred football matches since 1998, the vast majority involving Portsmouth F.C. I have watched matches in the Premier League and in the Wessex League, from Plymouth to Edinburgh, from the beautiful, calm and monied banks of the Thames to the forgotten urban wastelands of the Wirral, and have witnessed racist abuse only once. Granted, I may not have necessarily understood the consequences or meaning even if I’d have heard it during my first few trips to Fratton Park as a six year old. Yet until last Saturday the only first hand experience I had had with racism came on a bitter December afternoon in 2013, as an away fan undercover in the home terrace of Bristol Rovers’ Memorial Ground, when a middle-aged West Country man behind me made a joke to his companion regarding the nationality of Portsmouth striker Patrick Agyemang. I do not remember the specifics today but it was something of the ‘bongo bongo land’ variety.
I do not think the relationship I have with my football club is one which instils in me blind idolatry and upon them undoubted supremacy; I recognise the role that organised hooliganism had in the club’s recent past and have never glamorised that. However I had expressed before to my friends (both of the football persuasion and not) something of the indefinable quality of PFC; representative of a never-say-die navy city of densely packed working class housing, loyal and loud supporters and a proud history. Yet when Gary Roberts, Pompey’s star midfielder and outstanding player so far this season, had a minor tiff with a black defender of visitors Wycombe Wanderers, something changed. I heard the man behind me tell the opposing player to “have another banana”. Suddenly, as well as shock and disappointment, I ultimately felt sadness on a personal level. Perhaps even on an arrogant level, because as well as feeling empathy for the victim, I questioned my own sense of supportership. Had I been lying to myself all these years? Was I just a standard fan of any other club, built around a postcode lottery of blind patriotism which itself serves only as a microcosm for the nationalist movements which allow such racist sentiments to be expressed with less reproach?
I have had time to consider the situation now and do recognise it is as being a ‘perfect storm’ moment. My father and I had remarked during the match, and previous match that season, of the lack of black players in Pompey’s squad: this is the lowest I can remember our total of BAME players being in all eighteen years and four divisions of following the club. Creative midfielder Kyle Bennett, the only non-white current player, did not start the game. In recent years some of the greatest players to where the blue, white and red have been black: Linvoy Primus, David James, Sol Campbell. Does the man behind this racist outburst have such a short memory as to forget Lassana Diarra, Sulley Muntari and Jermain Defoe? Not to mention further in the recent past, to the careers of Mark Chamberlain and Vince Hilaire, who unfortunately had to deal with ‘banana’ jibes much more frequently than today’s professional footballer. Alas, I digress: reason is clearly lost on such a mind.
To return to the perfect storm theory, the current star striker at the club is a certain Conor Chaplin: top scorer, nineteen years old and from nearby Worthing, he has been on the club’s books since he was a boy. The Fratton faithful gleefully sing “he’s one of our own”; however what that means is lost on me. I take into account the tumultuous recent history of the club. The way in which we would often have had a different squad showing up one game to the next means in our darkest days means it is a relief that a couple of years later we can finally produce our own talented players. However it is a stretch to call a lad from Worthing particularly local, as that part of Sussex has a far greater relationship with Brighton as its bigger urban neighbour. It’s a chant which jars to my ears; you cannot highlight the superiority of ‘your own’ without denigrating the other, the outsider. And we’ll see whether he’s one of “our own” when he continues to score and gets snapped up by a mid-level Championship side to warm their bench for a season or two. Of course the final element of this situation that made it so striking is the country’s decision to leave the European Union. I do not regard Brexit, nor those who voted for it, as synonymous with racism, and I would not be bringing this aspect up had it not been for the perpetrator of the remark’s reaction when I confronted him.
My reaction was unexpected and almost uncontrollable. I spun around and uttered “are you fucking high?” (see urban dictionary if in doubt to the meaning) expressing my utter surprise that, even if those racist feelings were present, that one would ever think it acceptable to voice them out loud in a public arena. Furthermore, this particular slang saying is not language I would use to confront your average football fan, however, as I said, my reaction was unplanned. I asked the fan in question to confirm the remark he had made, and that it had been because of the player’s skin colour. He affirmed this, and worst of all, saw no reason for that to be wrong. It is my view that this is a post-Brexit acceptability of racism, as the man has sat behind me in the lower North Stand for two seasons now, and while spouting bile and ill-informed technical analysis is his usual way of approaching a football match, it feels like more than coincidence that his first racist outburst should come in the third home game after the referendum.
In disbelief at his nonchalance I told him such behaviour was “sinful”, a word I don’t think I’ve ever said out loud and which raises more questions for my subconscious considering I am in no way religious. And that was that. I turned round, didn’t particularly enjoy the rest of what was a cracking performance from my team in a 4–2 victory that sent them to 2nd in the table. I hope something hasn’t changed in my feelings towards my football club, but can’t help fearing the current political climate leans more towards this kind of behaviour than the atmosphere of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Indeed, the “Let’s Kick Racism out of Football” signs that were inescapable five to ten years previously seem to have disappeared without trace from Fratton Park. An argument against allocated all-seater stadiums (and to an extent, season tickets) is that I cannot escape this moron until next May at the earliest. I hope my reaction may have shocked him into self-doubt and wilful education; sadly I doubt it.