James Shield’s Column: Don't make the mistake of demonising Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday fans or ignore their voices

Chris Wilder never pretends to be whiter than white. No one, not even the most ardent of Sheffield Wednesday supporters, could accuse him of being prone to spin, corporate gobbledygook or someone intent on sanitizing the game out of existence.

By James Shield
Friday, 8th March 2019, 2:15 pm
Updated Friday, 8th March 2019, 2:18 pm
The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield
The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

Indeed, his admission that there has "always been a bit of rough and tumble" between followers of the two clubs before Monday's derby probably brought Bramall Lane's media department out in a cold sweat. The United manager was not condoning such behaviour. Not was he glorifying it. Simply, unlike many of those involved in the game, acknowledging there has never been a time when opposing fans skipped happily together to matches whilst exchanging pleasantries and holding hands.

Like most things which are tribal, emotions sometimes get the better of people and have the potential to get out of hand. (In 1906, a local newspaper reported how "free fights were plentiful" during a Western League fixture between Millwall and West Ham).

Which is why Wilder's comments following this week's match at Hillsborough, bemoaning the increasingly sinister aspect to the city's footballing rivalry, should resonate with supporters on both sides of the divide. Particularly those involved in the outbreaks of violence which left folk who had come in peace, including women and children, in fear of their own safety. (Actions which, even if you are that way inclined, are unlikely to earn you any badges of dishonour or respect among your peers).

Both before and after the game, concerns were expressed by folk of both a red and white and a blue and white persuasion about how the event is governed.

These were, still are in fact, legitimate and deserve to be addressed. They include questions relating to how crowd control tactics can ratchet up tension and why, according to eye witness testimonies, home and visiting fans left the stadium at exactly the same time following Monday's goalless draw and via exactly the same route. Over the coming days, I will provide some explanations and answers.

Confirmation that an independent advisory group has been established, involving representatives of both team's support bases and South Yorkshire Police, represents a welcome step in the right direction. Perhaps even a tacit admission that, in the not so distant past, the wrong tone has been struck. Either way, it is progress which should be encouraged and can potentially be of benefit to all involved.

Unfortunately, with so many people looking for an excuse to demonise football fans in general, to push the argument that we lack responsibility and must be subject to procedures which would not be tolerated in other areas of society, the scenes which marred the 131st competitive meeting between the two clubs will be manna from heaven. Doubtless they will be used to push the case for more draconian measures, however spurious it is, by some.

By its very nature, football will always be a magnet for disenfranchised individuals looking for the sense of belonging, status and family gangs or hooligan firms can provide. Indeed, there is a wealth of sociological research suggesting that studying terrace culture could provide authorities with invaluable insight into how terror groups such as ISIS recruit and radicalise. 

Unlike rugby union or cricket, which are frequently used as brickbats to beat the sometimes not to beautiful game, football is not perceived as being a middle class sport associated with the public school system. Suggestions devotees of the latter two are all Hooray Henry's and Henriettas are also dangerous caricatures but often perceptions are more important that the truth. Indeed, plenty of people, myself included, enjoy watching all three.

Sensible debate and even more sensible narratives are required to plot the right way forward. The media also has a part to play, by refraining from hysterical reportage; two groups of lads gesticulating at each other across a police cordon does not constitute 'shameful scenes', 'carnage' or something worthy of a screeching headline.

Those willingly sucked into violence must accept their actions make it increasingly likely either they or their fellow supporters will be treated with decency and respect.

But equally, those tasked with ensuring the smooth running of derbies and other matches must not use the most recent outbreaks to tar everyone with the same brush or ignore the voices of the overwhelming majority of fans.