Sol Campbell's return to White Hart Lane turns spotlight on vitriolic fans

17 January 2009 08:51
The police this week charged 11 Tottenham fans, including one 13-year-old, with alleged indecent chanting, for dishing out homophobic and racist abuse to Sol Campbell at Fratton Park last September.

Great timing; on Sunday afternoon we have the return leg, as Portsmouth travel to White Hart Lane with their own vitriolic agenda against Spurs' Harry Redknapp and Jermain Defoe.

Do football fans have the right to display their anger? How far can they go? Where does freedom of expression stop?

There's going to be some pretty vocal loathing going on in a game given further spice by the fact that wins on Saturday for Blackburn and West Brom left Spurs rock bottom of the Premier League, as they struggle to maintain the improvement they initially showed under Redknapp.

Portsmouth supporters feel betrayed by Redknapp, the manager who led them to the FA Cup last season but then left them for what he called a bigger club. It was his second infidelity, having previously left them for their despised rivals Southampton. When Redknapp signed Defoe earlier this month, the England striker received death threats.

The game is to be heavily policed and the Football Association have taken the unprecedented step of sending one of their observers in to monitor the crowd. If anything good comes out of the match – and let's hope for a decent game of football at the least – it is that supporter behaviour is back in focus, because there is no question that it is getting worse. Not in terms of violence but in terms of verbal abuse.

Take the Campbell abuse. In case you are lucky enough to have missed some of the lyrics sung last time around, here they are copied from an unofficial fans message board:

Sol, Sol, wherever you may be.

You're on the verge of lunacy.

We don't care if you're hanging from a tree.

Cos you're a Judas **** with HIV.

But you don't have to range far to find equally disgusting chants. The FA are talking tough about Monday's Merseyside derby after some deplorable chanting last time round.

Steven Gerrard had his family abused by some Everton fans while some Liverpool fans mocked Lee Carsley for having a disabled child.

Chelsea fans reportedly sang "you should have died in the tunnel" at Cristiano Ronaldo last Sunday.

Before Christmas a Newcastle fan was convicted of racially abusing Mido while last week a 43-year-old Aston Villa fan, described as the head of an engineering firm, was in court for throwing a coin at Redknapp although, having apparently drunk six pints, he missed and hit the linesman.

For Ledley King, the Spurs captain, the line seems to be clear. "Players can live with the boos, they can accept that," he said.

"I don't agree with booing your own players but opposition fans have the right to boo a player but there is a line there that shouldn't be crossed. When it gets personal that's where it's got to stop."

David James, of Portsmouth, had said pretty much the same thing earlier in the week.

With supporters, though, it gets muddied. Daniel Wynne, of Tottenham's Supporters Trust, thinks the reaction to the Campbell abuse has confused the issue. "The reaction to the chant was overstated," he said. "But you can't wrap the game in cotton wool.

"At the end of the day, Campbell lied to us. He said he wasn't going to leave and when he did he went to Arsenal. Players get abused up and down the country.

"Look at David Beckham, who used to get all sorts of abuse sung at him about his wife. But he didn't go moaning to the press."

It's getting on for eight years since Campbell left Spurs for Arsenal but you wouldn't be able to tell from the vitriol of the Spurs fans' abuse.

They are far from innocent – it's hard to avoid an abusive song about Arsenal's Emmanuel Adebayor when heading up to a match at the Lane – but the supporters of a club that has a strong Jewish identity are repeatedly subjected to hissing, to mimic the sound of the gas chambers.

"Consistent standards need to be applied week-in week-out," Wynne said. "Tottenham fans endure really offensive stuff every game and no action is taken. Then to make those 11 fans 'the most-wanted' in the country when you have the third in line for the throne calling people 'Paki'. it's ridiculous."

The sense of betrayal runs deep with Portsmouth fans, too. "Redknapp lied to us," said Kevin Ryan, the secretary of the Portsmouth supporters' club.

"As a manager he's great but as a man I don't know how he can ask for loyalty from his players. Football supporters don't get many chances to express themselves.

"They will pay good money today – £37 for a ticket – and I think most are willing to have the chance to give Redknapp some grief, more than their own team winning. He will get called Judas and all sorts. But I hope it all stays on the right side of the line."

Easier said than done. One fan told me they were planning to wrap scarves around their mouths to foil the policing of chants. In a way, this sums up the problem. It all comes down to accountability.

Players and managers are accountable for what they say. It might not always be policed satisfactorily but they have nowhere to hide.

For fans, however, they feel the anonymity of being part of a pack. But that anonymity – like that granted by the internet message board – is also dangerous. It gives the illusion of the evasion of responsibility.

On Sunday, the FA and the police seem determined to make individuals accountable, even if they are submerged in the mass. If they have the courage to apply it, consistently and fairly, for more than one game, the impact will undoubtedly be positive.

Source: Telegraph