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Sports Direct, Hillsborough and fan behaviour

This has been a topic I’ve been meaning to touch upon for a long time but kept procrastinating till now. A report was up on the Guardian yesterday, where Sports Direct, a sports apparel business owned by businessman-cum-Newcastle owner (and and part-time clown in the local circus) Mike Ashley, was forced to apologise for printing shirts mocking the Hillsborough victims. The t-shirt in question had ’96 Not Enough’ printed in front making a reference to the 96 victims of the tragedy.

So why am I talking about this? For one, the t-shirt cost £55. More importantly though, it was a Manchester United fan who bought it and uploaded photos of it on his Facebook page.

Tragedy, as many would attest, is not a laughing matter. And, as much as it would disappoint a few, it’s not a laughing matter in sport either. To pass off such taunts as part of “fan banter” is an excuse as old as the Football League.

Sports Direct was quick to pull the t-shirt off its inventory, hurriedly changing its policy on printing shirts, and issuing an apology. “Sports Direct has been notified that an extremely offensive and wholly inappropriate football shirt was printed at one of its stores. The store assistant printed this unknowingly and has been deeply shocked upon being notified of the significance of this and the upset caused.”

Of course, claiming ignorance or innocence, as the case may be, sounds more facetious than sincere and is a typical corporate cop-out. The chairperson of Hillsborough Family Support Group thought likewise when she took exception to the manner of the apology. “I think Sports Direct are worse than the guy who wanted it put on the back of his shirt,” she said.

I would beg to differ on that count, but only slightly. Whilst it is hard to necessarily compare two evils, a giant corporate entity like Sports Direct mass produce shirts with various punchlines printed on them, some witty, some crass and some offensive. It may be tasteless, but their products are manufactured as a function of demand for said shirts.

So whilst we learn nothing really new about a business that functions like, well, a business [what, you thought businesses had feelings?] we can learn a lot more about the fan that actually spent £55 on it, and proudly posed for photos with the excitement level of a 16 year old gifted a car by his dad on his birthday. It is this sort of fan that worries me.

I am not talking just this Man Utd fan, and whilst I can’t necessarily speak for rest of the rivalries that exist in the Premier League, I do have a fair bit to say about the sparring between us and Liverpool.

We can stick our head in the sand and dismiss these as happening in the ‘minority’, but when feelings of mutual hatred can be so deep rooted, as they are in football, emotions can force people to say things they wouldn’t dare in their real-life, sober states. Liverpool fans are no saints either (and City fans for that matter). The Munich chants at the Spirit of Shankly end of season do was a classic case akin to seeing someone on the street kicking another mercilessly, and instead of doing something to help the victim, pulling a chair and popping open a can of beer to enjoy the action as it played out.

I will go a step further and voice my distaste for the “Murderers” chant relating to Heysel, which despite being Juventus’ tragedy and the work of drunk Liverpool fans, could have happened to any club in the volatile, dark, hooligan days of the 80’s. There is a good argument to be made about Liverpool passing the buck on accepting blame for so many years, yet, more often than not, United fans will scream “Murderers” not necessarily because they expect Liverpool to accept responsibility or some such lofty ideal (inebriated fans on the terraces couldn’t give a toss about what is essentially a matter between Liverpool and Juventus), but because they “can”. Because they want an outlet to respond to years of being reminded of a tragedy of their own. It’s human nature to get back after years of harassment. But it doesn’t make it right.

It’s been an aspect of football that has always disturbed me. Even seemingly well-intentioned human beings can be reduced to a vitriol-spewing pile of rubble. It gets worse from there, they indoctrinate the younger ones with tales that are, for a want of a better word, coloured with perceptions that confuse the recipients of said wisdom on their perspective of right and wrong. Suddenly, it becomes alright to say a lot of things, and even easier to justify: “It’s just a game” they’d say.

Yes, it’s only a bloody game. Which is why bringing up the dead as a device to infuriate regardless of context just plain stinks in my eyes. “It’s only in the minority”, some would say. In my experience running this blog, being witness to countless posts in other blogs, forums and communities, it really doesn’t seem like a minority. “Munich bastard scum”, prefaces many colourful exchanges with Liverpool fans who don’t agree with something I may have written. (I’m sure their may have been a fair few responding the other way) The internet may be an impersonal place for an example, but it can also reveal feelings in the dark recesses in one’s heart that they would be loath to express when face to face.

Sports Direct may have been massively foolish printing such shirts (sort of explains Newcastle’s current state of affairs) but a lot of what many fans dismiss as “mere banter” worries me more.



  1. Venu

    21 August 2009 at 08:27

    When I first saw it on one of the arsenal blogs, I was horrified! Yeah friendly banter on blogs and at a game are in the spirit of the game but abusing tragedies is not to be condoned!!! I understand the passion of fans but does it always have to translate to hatred towards others? can’t we support the club we love without being abusive of other fans? Is it all about bile and vitriol? Sad!!

  2. Onkar

    21 August 2009 at 09:13

    @Venu: Its sad… The mentality of making fun tradgedy really sucks.. I feel shamefull as a fan if any of my fellow Man UTD fan has been this way. I mean in competition also you can be graceful and complete human, could n’t??? But alas, huge ask….
    But you what I feel where this comes from… This comes from a rule of the game called competition… You rightly asked a question can’t we only love our club and not care about others… But, that can’t happen in this world bro.. As we all learn one rule of the living that applies to everything that is ‘Survival of the Fittest’ and once your competition goes into this territory then sanity is lost at all the level. I mean we all believe that when we are beating our competitor beat them to an extent he won’t be in a condition react but he can only surrender.
    This rule of competition unknowingly takes control of your sanity and then everything turns into a mess of HATRET, ABUSE, INSANE behaviour…SADLY 🙁 🙁
    So what ever you wish for might be beutifull but can’t be real unfortunately…. There will be Munich and there will be Hillsborough because thats how this world runs… 🙁 🙁 🙁

  3. spizzy

    21 August 2009 at 10:17

    Like B.I.G the rapper said in reference to the death of tupac, “Ye, we had our differences, but I’d never wish death on anybody”.
    Whatever you call it, competition, taunting, or making fun of, its just wrong when people use tragedy as a tool to infuriate the opponent, especially when the tragedy is of such scale.

    @Onkar:Competition is well and good, but we are all humans, we all know right from wrong,at least those of us who are mentally sane, and we know when not to cross certain lines, but some fans think tragedy is a tool to use to provoke and irritate other fans which is dispicable.

  4. Onkar

    21 August 2009 at 10:46

    @spizzy: Thats precisely what i said that when i come across any Man UTD fan who is using the Tragedy as a tool i feel really shamefull to be his co fan of our beloved MAN UTD. At least, I won’t go out makea fun of any one’s tragedy (specially after knowing how it feels when someone make a fun of Munich tragedy) its a great loss to any one who ever suffers…..

  5. Ben

    21 August 2009 at 10:46

    I agree that chants about tragedies – whether Munich, Hillsborough or Heysel – are unacceptable. I never join in with the ‘murderers’ chant nor the ‘we won it three times/without killing anyone’ chant. I think people who do should stop and think.

    I don’t blame sports direct for the t-shirt, incidentally. It’s very believable that the member of staff had no idea of the significance of the number 96.

  6. Onkar

    21 August 2009 at 10:48

    @spizzy: And as far as competition part of the comment i was just poiniting out why people few resort to all these things. Its just out of the ‘Rules of COmpetition’ i feel…

  7. Traverse

    21 August 2009 at 11:43

    There are three words we can sum up the owner of that shirt with.

    what a twat

  8. Onkar

    21 August 2009 at 12:20

    I think tomorrow is going to be long outing again.. I know this is not a subject of this thread but i just could not resist my self after reading in couple online versions of UK Dailies that this week end RedNev is expected to start. For god ‘s sake plaese fergie spare us from that torture plaese there are Da Silvas and De Leats of this world are available so give them a thought.
    Please for heaven sake stick to your words that this year is going to be the youngsters year… Please do justice to them… I want De Leat to start in Back four for sure….

  9. Traverse

    21 August 2009 at 13:42

    At least Vidic is back, but Gary Neville? Fucking hell.

  10. johnsom33

    21 August 2009 at 15:27

    @Ben: I think its very plausible that someone made that shirt without thinking it thru. Coreect me if IM wrong, but the way I understand it. Said United fan went into a store and had a clerk make up the shirt for him, right? Or did he get it off the rack and purchase it.

    If the customer had it made custom, then I can totally see store clerk not really thinking about what he was putting on the shirt. Anyone who has worked retail, knows that at times you put your body on cruise control and are not really engaged in your work(I know I did all the time.)

    So for me the blame is squarely on the customer, who had his mind made up before he walked into the store, and he prolly ran it by his mates who encouraged him to go thru with it. At the end of the day its should make all fans sick to their stomach that this element is still a part of the beautiful game.

  11. Grognard

    21 August 2009 at 18:45

    It’s a bloody disgrace and it’s a crying shame human being are reduced to the lowest common denominator just because of the football team they follow. When football becomes the singe most important driving force in a human being’s life, one has to ask what cultural and spiritual symptoms brought them to that point? I love my footy almost to an addictive point but to feel that gives me the right to create or join a hooligan gang and to bust up opponent fans for wearing their colors and supporting their team is just ludicrous. It would make sense if football itself was a real war on the pitch. Where players felt the same misguided loyalty and hatred for their opponents as the millions of muppets all around the globe do who condone and participate in these barbaric pastimes.

    Is it boredom, discontentment with life, a suicidal tendency or just plain stupidity that drives such morons? And then some complete assholes decide to further exasperate the situation by running off t-shirts and selling them at a ridiculous price to celebrate a tragedy and a disaster. Sick, pathetic and completely in touch with today’s diseased society. Sometimes I am ashamed to be part of the human race but then again, sometimes I’m, proud to be Canadian and laugh at the moronic severity and extremes of Neanderthal behavior that are prevalent in other regions of the world.

    For shame on all of them who support such awful things. And we all wonder how on Earth the The Third Reich ever came into existence and how the holocaust ever happened? And even more pathetic than those examples is all of this is over allegiance to a football team? And people call me negative :???? 😕 😕 🙄 🙄

  12. Grognard

    21 August 2009 at 18:49

    I commend you for writing that excellent piece RR. I also think it’s pathetic that this article wasn’t the one that showed up as a link on NEWSNOW, but the misleading thread of Stephens that talks about Sneijder did. Some people’s priorities in the world of responsible journalism. Typical of any news service really. For a month now CNN is obsessed totally consumed by Michael Jackson while far more pressing and important things are happening in the US and in the world. So you write a great article on a great subject and expect some strong feedback and what do you get? A dozen responses. Forgive me for saying that many of our members have minds of mush and misplaced hearts. 🙄

  13. Red Ranter

    21 August 2009 at 19:18

    @Grognard: Newsnow is an automated system that pulls updated posts. Posts that go top of the queue are a function of the number of times people have clicked on it. And, needless to say, provocative/scandalous/interesting headlines go to the top of the queue. So it’s obvious that Sneijder article was on top of the pile.

    I actually wanted the Hillsborough post to be the post of the day today. The reason I usually go with one post a day at most, is because I always want to give the topic enough time to be debated upon without fragmenting the commenters among several threads in a day.

    However, I’d told Stephen to post on Friday assuming I’d be busy today, but somehow I actually wrote this. I forgot to tell Stephen to postpone his post for another day, and went to bed.

    I also agree that the sort of headline for the Sneijder post was unnecessary. I usually don’t intend to trick the reader and I think it was an unfortunate choice. But I can’t blame Stephen for it either, because I didn’t mention this part of my editorial guidelines to him.

  14. Grognard

    21 August 2009 at 21:19

    @Red Ranter: It’s too bad you never waited on posting it a bit later because it certainly deserved more attention and feedback. Well written mate and good for you. And thank you for telling others about this breakdown in moral values and ethics, not to mention bad taste.

  15. Red Ranter

    21 August 2009 at 21:40

    @Grognard: Well I went off to bed and when I woke up in the morning another post was up. I usually pre-approve posts, but sometimes it’s not possible with the time difference. I thought he wasn’t going to post today. As I said, got myself to blame for that. 🙂


    22 August 2009 at 13:17

    In reference to this post… unfortunately unlike war where with have a “rules of engagement” set out for the civilised war mongerers in football their is no such thing. We the fans make our own rules up as we go, If the scouse scum chant munich at us we in return chant hillsborough back at them. It’s a case of you call me something and i’ll call you this. School yard antics not the actions of adults. We shall never see the end of this kind of thing because there is nothing we can actually do about it. Grounds may refuse entry to anyone wearing such offence clothing and bar anyone chanting such verses but it will continue none the less.


    22 August 2009 at 13:27

    Oh just so you now i do not agree with making such chants or wearing such offensive messages on my shirts. Though i will admit to having said these things before in anger or jest with friends (some of which are unfortunately for them “liverpool fans”) but to say 96 not enough is without doubt fucking disgraceful! 😡 They “albeit scousers” were fans of the beautiful game and did not deserve to die for supporting their team. As i am sure many if the sane Scousers would say the busby babes did not deserve to die for playing the game they love for a team they love.

  18. craig

    23 August 2009 at 21:27

    im so glad to have read your article. im a scouser and a red, and i totally disagree with any chants about the deaths of people at football. i have confronted liverpool fans over munich chants at old trafford several times, pointing out we wouldnt like to hear them about hillsborough/heysel. ok, we dont really like each other, you could go as far to say we hate each other, but lets keep our rivalry because were the most succesful teams in england, not over the misfortune of people who have died playing or watching a sport we all love

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