The chanting among Manchester United’s supporters about the death of two Leeds United fans in Turkey was neither big nor clever. Nor was it original.
The wider reaches of English football might be suitably outraged but references to Istanbul are not a new phenomenon.
Crass though the taunts on Tuesday were, they fell short of the depths reached at Millwall in April. Even by the standards of the New Den, United’s last visit to the stadium was an unmitigated disgrace – an afternoon when scores of supporters carried Turkish flags which could only have been printed, or bought, for the purpose of inciting the away crowd.
Incite the away crowd they duly did and bottles and coins flew back and forth before the Championship game had time to start. Sadly, it was Millwall-Leeds as many people have come to understand the rivalry, but the disorder was premeditated in a way that ought not to be tolerated in an English stadium. As with the Istanbul banner unfurled in Elland Road’s South Stand on Tuesday, the intention was either to start a riot or assist Turkey’s tourism industry. Answers on a postcard to Old Trafford.
Within 48 hours of the violence at Millwall, Leeds had issued a statement condemning the provocation and Millwall had served indefinite bans on four of the supporters responsible. Say what you will about Millwall but the club are not afraid to deal with their own when the need arises. They are more proactive than the Football Association whose response is often to leave discipline in the hands of its members and the local police.
Shortly after the match in Bermondsey, I contacted the FA to ask what action, if any, it planned to take over the waving of Turkish flags (too many, in my view, to constitute isolated offences). The governing body said it was “asking for observations” from Millwall and Leeds. Five months later, the controversy has disappeared without trace. Case closed, or so it seems, until United return to the New Den later this season and the trouble begins again.
It is convenient to lay the blame for April’s events with Millwall, a club who have worked diligently over many years to enhance their reputation and cure their ills. Likewise, it is hardly the policy of Manchester United to defend chanting about Istanbul, or for Leeds to indulge songs about Munich. They would class it as a stain on their name.
But it is disheartening when events like those at the New Den pass without the footballing establishment seizing the moment to set an example and bring sanctions to bear.
Prompted by Tuesday’s Carling Cup tie in Leeds, radio phone-ins and newspaper articles have revisited the subject of how best to eradicate chanting which falls outside the remit of legitimate banter. There is no clear solution.
It is pointless to look to the police when 3,500 refer to Istanbul en masse, and even less realistic to suggest that clubs themselves should deal with crowds on that scale. No amount of CCTV footage from Elland Road would single out precisely which of Manchester United’s supporters were culpable and which were not.
The most obvious port of call is the FA, an organisation which has the evidence and, presumably, the power to punish a club whose fans are guilty of bringing the game into disrepute. The action it takes in response to Tuesday night – specifically over offensive chanting, as opposed to issues of crowd trouble which fall to the police – will tell you exactly how seriously it takes this issue.
If the FA’s hand falls as heavily as it did on Millwall last season, the matter will be gathering dust by next week.
That, in the end, is the problem with taunts about Istanbul and other tasteless subjects: no-one appears angry enough to take up the fight and see it through. It always becomes yesterday’s news once people lose the will to care.
The more it continues and the longer it persists, the more the reality presents itself – that the scourge will remain until supporters of clubs with a genuine problem bite the bullet and police themselves.
If that sounds fanciful then perhaps it is – football and ethics are a tough marriage.
But there are more than enough decent fans out there to make it happen; more than enough who understand the concept of quid-pro-quo and the importance of taking the moral high ground.
Who else can cleanse the game if not those closest to the sore? And what does it say about football if the respectable majority will not?