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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.