The darkside of the net
In the early eighties – and for much of that sorry decade – the experience of being a match-going, non-racist Leeds United fan was lonely and disgusting. The atmosphere around Elland Road was rancid with bigotry, skin-headed, bone-headed racists sold “The Flag”, a right-wing snot-rag, outside the ground. It was done openly, brazenly. Dissenting voices, when raised, brought upon their owners the risk of violence. The club was inert and complacent. The police sat by and watched. It was depressingly, shamefully awful. And then, things started to change.
Civilised, intelligent Leeds United supporters, unable and unwilling to accept the evil being dispensed in the name of their beloved club, organised themselves into Leeds United Fans Against Racism & Fascism. Fanzines were sold expounding the voice of reason against the bigoted filth being peddled by the racists. More decent supporters woke up to what had been going on, joined the anti-racist movement, bought the fanzines, started to raise the voice of protest against the ignorance and malice of the terrace chants against visiting black players.
Even the slumbering Leeds United itself reacted positively to the changes afoot. Black players were signed, the first since the brief but bright Leeds career of Terry Connor. Noel Blake, affectionately nicknamed “Bruno”, loved by the Kop. Vince Hilaire, quicksilver winger reviving memories of Albert Johanneson in the sixties, the first black player to play in the Cup Final and a Leeds hero when the Revie revolution was still new. It was a painfully long, slow job – but Leeds United finally managed to all but rid itself of one of the most degradingly awful reputations for racism and bigotry anywhere in the game – and they largely did it as an institution, by the efforts of enlightened fans supplemented by the club’s more enlightened transfer policy at a time when there was still an unofficial bar observed by the likes of Everton FC.
I’m extremely proud of the way my club tackled its problems. The Leeds United of today bears no resemblance at all to the sick club being brought to its knees 30 years ago, dying of the cancer of racism. The whole world has moved on, though pockets of the disease still exist at home, yet far more significantly and overtly abroad. We now live in a time when these manifestations of hate and ignorance are a palpable shock to the system – and that in itself is a massive change for the better. Such inhuman behaviour has never ever been acceptable, but now it’s seen to be completely unacceptable, and that is the very essence of progress and reinvention.
But what actually happened to all of those who revelled in the racism and violence that was so much more prevalent in the 1980s? Have they given up on football support altogether? Have they, perhaps, defected en masse to Millwall, where both problems still rear their ugly heads with depressing semi-regularity? The sad fact is that, far from removing their loathsome presence from the world of Leeds United, many of these idiots are still very much around – older, but no wiser; and still determined to espouse their Daily Mail recycled views even if they’re no longer up for a barney in the physical sense.
As you can tell from the match-day experience, the people physically present at the ground are more prosperous these days, less inclined to fisticuffs as a means of recreation and certainly not given to racial slurs and abusive chants based on those slurs. It’s become unfashionable – and as that cultural change has occurred, so the attraction of being at the match has waned for those of the more extreme attitudes.
Like it or not, the tendency towards racism and xenophobia is closely linked to the extremes of right wing thinking – I use that word in its loosest possible sense. Those of a more left-wing outlook do not, as a rule, tend towards racial abuse and other such prejudice-driven behaviour. As with any rule of thumb, there will be isolated exceptions – but for the most part, racism and the tendency towards its expression in violent and abusive terms is a right-wing phenomenon.
This is still relevant today, despite the fact that the physical manifestations of such behaviour are greatly reduced at our football grounds, notably Elland Road. It’s relevant because there is one remaining stronghold where these people gather together, share their views, yearn for the “good old days” and jealously guard their out-dated views against infiltration from what they see as left-wing or liberal weakness. That stronghold is the internet, or at least isolated parts of it. Where Leeds United is concerned, my experience as someone who feels the need to challenge the uglier tendencies of the Right is that some boards and forums – notionally just about support for Leeds United FC – are no-go areas. You’re not welcome if you try to push an agenda that runs contrary to the prevailing right-wing views; indeed you are likely to be gagged for “provocation” if you persist in this.
Such has been my recent experience on the WACCOE board, where the resident hard-of-thinking types get very hot under the collar if they feel that their cosy, right-wing, casually racist views are being challenged. The same sort of thing applies equally if not more so on the Network 54 “Service Crew” Forum, where people who are decidedly old enough to know better still talk in fondly nostalgic terms of the days when a good old punch-up was part of the weekend’s entertainment, and when no away trip was really worthwhile unless a pub or two had been smashed up, and there’d been an “off” with some opposing “lads” with maybe the chance to bait an identifiable ethnic minority, just for fun.
The sad thing is that, on both of these sites, there is frequently plenty of interest to read and to get involved in discussing – but, inevitably, as you become more of a contributor, your own views become known – particularly if, as I have done, you share blog posts and argue your corner. Then, the moderators or admin types move in, because they feel that you’re rocking the boat and upsetting the precious little racists and ex-thugs that seemingly make up the bulk of the membership. It’s all so depressingly juvenile and exclusive – when it could actually be a valuable resource for thrashing out the real issues that face Leeds United and its fans today, in a world that has changed radically from that of 30 years ago.
It was only going to be a matter of time before I was silenced on one or both forums – and now I have no voice on WACCOE; something that fails to fill me with regret or chagrin. My offence was to speculate that UKIP are set fair to harm the Tories at next year’s election, by splitting the racist idiot vote. It was a mildly provocative line, calculated to upset and draw out the real xenophobes on the site – but naturally it descended into a free for all, and now I’ve been found to be an unhealthy influence – so I’m gagged in order that the resident mini-Farages can chat happily among themselves – frequently starting their comments with “I’m no racist, but….”.
The fact that I’ve now been silenced is not something I’ll lose any sleep over for my own sake – but it did make me think about the type of person who is still out there, parading under the banner of Leeds United supporters and identifiable as such to those outside the club – who might then judge us all by what a few unreconstructed idiots have to say, while more moderate views are being suppressed.
I honestly believe that the problems of racism and gratuitous violence in football stadia are virtually solved now; that the perpetrators of both types of unpleasant, anti-social behaviour have either been chased away from the grounds, or are so outnumbered and closely monitored that they have no option but to keep their nasty little ways to themselves – and to other venues. Even though you still do get the odd isolated incident – as with the moronic Aaron Cawley at Hillsborough last season – they’re rare enough to be virtually a thing of the past. But we live in a digital age, and the fact is that Leeds United FC is a massive presence on the net – much, much more popular than all but a few Premier League clubs. That being the case, we have to look to our reputation in the virtual world just as much as we do in the real-life match-day environment.
The presence of at least two relatively high-profile web-sites, which appear to harbour many whose views and tendencies are inimical to modern-day standards, is not good news. It’s to be hoped that, maybe, more enlightened moderation could yet induce more grown-up attitudes and behaviour – or at least so alienate the extremists that they fade out of view altogether. At the very least, I’d earnestly hope that – whoever from opposing or rival clubs ever takes a look at WACCOE or the Service Crew Forum – they won’t judge the bulk of genuine Leeds United fans by the childish, ignorant and prejudiced rubbish they might read on those particular two sites. It’s not big, it’s not clever – and it certainly has nothing to do with 21st century Leeds.