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In Wembley, no one can hear you scream

The big problem at last week’s England international was not unruly fans but a total lack of atmosphere.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

I’ve always been a club-before-country kind of guy. Palace till I die, England till the penalty shootout.

For various reasons I’d never actually been to an international football match. Until last week that is, when I ventured north (of the river) to see England against Wales at Wembley. To be honest, I’m in no hurry to return. Nothing to do with the boorish behaviour of the fans, you understand. It was the atmosphere and quality of football – or, to be precise, the absence of either – that I found most depressing.

I didn’t know what to expect on the night. Would there be mobs of old-school England supporters, the ones from small-town clubs who sing ‘No Surrender to the IRA’ and ‘Ten German bombers’ and who inspire fear and loathing amongst Guardianistas? Or would I find swarms of nouveau supporters with their faces painted and wearing jester’s hats? Would it be exclusively the preserve of white blokes or would there be black, Asian or female supporters? In truth, it was a mixture of old and new fans. Brent Council had been flogging cheap tickets to residents of the borough and, judging by the multi-ethnic composition of the crowd, many had taken up the offer.

The fact that this was a ‘home nations’ derby ought to have injected a bit of needle. Or so you’d have expected. Walking from Wembley Park tube station I didn’t sense any tension or violence. I saw a group of England fans walk past a couple of Welshmen draped in red and green. ‘We’re coming for you, we’re coming for you, you dirty Welsh bastards, we’re coming for you’, chanted the English. ‘Sheep, sheep, sheep shaggers’, retorted the Welsh supporters defiantly. The banter was foul-mouthed but all quite good-natured.

The new Wembley is an impressive stadium but, like many new stadiums, it feels rather soulless. Writing in the Observer last Sunday, David James suggested that Wembley had lost its ability to inspire England players. ‘Of course, the new Wembley has immaculate facilities but it’s more akin to walking through an airport terminal – decidedly clinical’, wrote James. The airport analogy is spot on. The stadium seems too huge and cavernous. I could see the Wales fans to our left. I just couldn’t hear what they were singing. I could make out the distant strains of the England supporters band who were (thankfully) stationed on the opposite side of ground, blasting out their irritating and tired repertoire. Some fans a few rows behind us belted out a chorus of ‘No Surrender to the IRA’. The Welsh national anthem was roundly booed. But around where I was sitting, where there were plenty of black and Asian faces, nobody seemed unduly perturbed.

The game itself was played in an eerily muted atmosphere, too. England’s nervous and uninspired performance didn’t really help to lift the crowd. And the fans’ growing impatience probably didn’t help the players. The Welsh fans seemed to be enjoying themselves – but we were too far away to hear the ritual trading of abuse that enlivens domestic league games. I didn’t hear a single chorus of ‘Ten German Bombers’ all night. The nearest I got, as we were being herded into the tube station, was a drunken and slightly silly adaptation: ‘There were Ten Chicken Nuggets in the air… and the RAF from England shot one down.’

I was somewhat shocked to read on Twitter, as I made my way home, that a Welsh fan had been killed outside the stadium. I certainly hadn’t seen any violence all evening. I was also somewhat surprised to read one football blogger’s decidedly negative experience of the game. Writing on the Football Ramble website, Luke Moore bemoaned ‘the threatening, snarling and downright uncomfortable atmosphere that pervades everywhere, the pathetic, jingoistic stench with an undercurrent of transparent racism and anger at every turn, both inside the stadium and out’.

I’ve no reason to doubt Moore’s experience of the match. He recounts seeing one England fan punch another in the face. There were 77,000 spectators at the game so it’s perfectly plausible that there were isolated violent incidents which I was blissfully unaware of it. However, I don’t agree that there was a ‘downright uncomfortable atmosphere’. Moore was clearly uncomfortable. It doesn’t follow that the rest of us felt the same way. The article perfectly expresses contemporary liberal prejudices about white working-class football fans who are widely reviled as drunken, racist and loutish.

I’ve got a well-honed football aggro radar. I’ve been going to games for years so I can sense trouble and know how to avoid it. And, to be honest, I really didn’t feel intimidated or threatened in and around the stadium. Nor did I see or hear any hostility directed at black and Asian fans. But don’t just take my word for it. Dan Jones’s London Evening Standard column was a refreshing departure from the hooligan-bashing that the media often indulge in. ‘I saw no trouble, heard no unusually offensive chants and felt no intimidating atmosphere. I was nowhere near the fatal incident and learned of it only via Twitter, after the match was over. It was a largely peaceful evening’, he wrote.

You won’t find me singing ‘God Save the Queen’. Nor do I particularly like the outdated war songs about the Germans and the IRA. They’re a bit sad, really. But this isn’t the same as racist chanting. Black players weren’t booed. There were no monkey chants. The odd chorus of ‘No Surrender to the IRA’ doesn’t make this a KKK rally. It felt more like a Barry Manilow concert – minus the entertainment.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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