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The reason there’s no fences is so that you don’t climb over them.

Posted on March 11, 2019

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Heaven knows what Paul Mitchell was thinking as he set off to watch Birmingham City play Aston Villa on Sunday. For those of you who have no interest in football, even though this story made the main national news, this is what he did.  In few moments of stupidity and cowardice, Mitchell managed to get on to the field of play and flap an ineffectual (thank goodness) punch at the captain of his local rivals’ team. From a distance of a hundred metres or so, I witnessed the incident with dismay.

Just to put this in context, I have written elsewhere in this blog about the burden of supporting a team for life. Only a few moments before Mitchell’s intervention, I had been on my feet frothing the sort of expletives at the same player which would have merited instant dismissal at my place of work or a police caution had it been outside the stadium. There is plenty of moral high ground here that I definitely do not occupy. But there are lines, both real and metaphorical, that must not be breached.

Hundreds of thousands of people watch live football every week and encroachments on to the field of play are rare. I have no statistical evidence to confirm this, but my suspicion is that many more people cross the white line to exhibit body parts that should be better left concealed than do so to confront players. ‘Invasions’, with rare exceptions, are usually good-natured and celebratory. The rules are clear and understood: shout any old garbage you like – and I, along with most of those hundreds of thousands, do so – but do it from behind the line.

Football, in particular, made a pact with its spectators following the calamity of Hillsborough in 1989. The fences will go, but you have to play your part in keeping order. In a fortuitous synchronicity, this happened just as football was falling into the hands of those with dollar signs in their eyes and the game began its gradual transformation toward glamour, gentrification and globalisation and away from its working class roots. Whatever anyone thinks of this, football has certainly felt safer for many people than it did in the past – and it would be inexcusable if this security did not extend to the players themselves.

Another modern development is in evidence at every football ground:  the spectator who is either ignoring the game to check a phone or is using that phone to record parts of the action (presumably because of the shortage of high-definition highlights’ packages available on all digital devices). Moments after yesterday’s incident and within the stadium itself, there was conversation about media reaction and within an hour, speculation – which turned out to be accurate – about the perpetrator’s identity. I have a phone, therefore I am.

In the weeks prior to yesterday’s game there was, on perfectly respectable platforms, perpetual traffic between and among supporters of both sides. A good deal of it was scurrilous, some of it was poorly judged and clumsily expressed, a fringe of it bordered on bad taste and almost all of it was forgettable but harmless drivel. Some of it would not have passed the basic principle that I request for this blog – that you should only commit to print what you’d be prepared to say to someone’s face. For all of that, it was mostly innocuous nonsense that gets you noticed, even for a few moments and which, if you’re lucky, prompts echoes of what you already think.

The writer and comedian Jerry Seinfeld dryly observed that it was amazing that every day the amount of news in the world just exactly fits the newspapers. But newspapers now bring us little news – and when they do, it’s too late. It’s not pages that need filling, it’s the borderless realms of cyberspace, social media, talk-shows and 24 hour rolling news. Attached to phones at all times, we have reached the situation where boundaries between the digital and the real have become increasingly blurred. We drench ourselves in re-heated, half-baked, self-affirming nonsense to the point where what’s on the phone becomes part of what we are. Need convincing? Just do a realistic totting up of how much time you spend on it.

I started off by expressing ignorance about what was on Paul Mitchell’s mind and I’ll admit that now I’m guessing. All the same, it looks entirely possible that he may have been happily immersed in this digital ‘banter’. He revelled in the moment of his arrest, almost certainly seeing himself as a potential local hero. I’d confidently predict that if his arms weren’t pinned behind him, he’d have liked a selfie of the moment. Is this the real thing or is it just fantasy? And it’s entirely possible that these blurred lines were made even more wobbly by the ingestion of any amount of noxious, intoxicating substances. Whatever his motives – and, quite possibly, those of others who may have encouraged him – it looks as though he’ll have time on his hands to ponder his actions.

Predictably, there has been a clamour for toughness, action and the application of stark punishment. Such a response is justified – the line has, after all, been crossed. But quite who to punish and to what extent is less clear.

So, in the spirit of intellectual inquiry – and a touch of mischievousness – I’ll start the ball rolling. First, the young man himself, obviously. It was a cowardly, dangerous assault for which there are no mitigating circumstances. Second, the club who engaged the security firm whose employees failed to protect the player involved – probably because they were cheap and disengaged. Third, the security firm itself  (probably massively under-regulated)  that makes money hand over fist through sending out undertrained, inadequate staff into potentially fraught situations and paying them a pittance for doing so.

But there’s a bigger point. This horrible incident is part of a wider, societal discourse of contempt, which, taken at its worst, emboldens some people to write and act in ways that imperil others. Vile tweets to those in public life at all levels; the aggressive door-stepping of politicians (hopeless and feckless as they may be) as they attempt to fulfil their duties; at worst, physical threats and attacks ranging from this rather under-reported attack on Jeremy Corbyn  to the unspeakable murder of Jo Cox. The trash in the ether can translate to acts of individual stupidity and violence.

On a day when I’m finding my life-long allegiance to a football club just a touch (and, I’m sure, temporarily) tarnished, it’s worth remembering three things. Bellowing inanity from behind the touchline is acceptable as long as it is time limited; other football fans are just like you – you are ‘enemies’ for ninety minutes only and apart from that, your lives are exactly the same; don’t type or tap what you wouldn’t say to your neighbour’s face.

Pass it on.



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