This column comes on the back of a photograph taken at Ewood Park on Saturday but it was in the ether for longer than that and is, quite honestly, overdue. It concerns Jimmy Savile, an individual who football reporters are blessed not to write about but whose name has somehow pervaded the game.
The photo in question captured a Leeds United supporter in the away concourse at Blackburn Rovers, kitted out like Savile with a blue jacket, blonde wig and cigar. To say that dressing like a deceased sex offender crosses a line – the point of the outfit in the first place, surely – would only state the obvious and this is not about one supporter or an isolated image going viral over the weekend. The image, perversely, shines a light on the indifference with which football, and the Championship specifically, gives Savile the time of day.
Seven years ago Savile died – seven years next Monday – and still he is the subject of chants at every ground Leeds United have visited this season. The record shows that the club’s travelling crowd are prone to reciprocating, generally without fail, but despite the fool in costume at Blackburn it can be said with some confidence that the inclination to sing about Savile would not be there were his name not being thrown at them. It is a base-level game of tit-for-tat, which no-one seems prepared to disrupt.
So where to start? Originality for one, and the realisation that these chants have had oxygen and impunity for the best part of a decade now. Identity for two, and the weird presumption that connecting Savile with Leeds is anymore cutting than travelling to Madrid and taunting the locals about the UK’s control of Gibraltar. But perspective is the point; the disregard for the extent of Savile’s offences and the very recent consequences of them.
I defer to Ian Holloway on this one, a coach who spent 20 minutes laying into Millwall’s crowd after Leeds played there in 2014 and Savile got some airtime. “Stop and think about what he’s actually done,” Holloway said. “It’s not funny.”
There are, inevitably, victims of Savile’s who travel away with Leeds. I met one a few years ago at Reading. He did not talk in detail about his experience and it was not my place to ask but if the people targeted by Savile ever feel like faceless numbers, rest assured that they aren’t. The allegations against him were so vast that it is almost inconceivable that others don’t sit in the home end of stadiums where Savile is brought up over the course of each season. Has the Championship become hardened to it? Has it gone beyond the point where songs about Savile are fresh enough to cause offence? Or is football too ambivalent to deal with something it should have taken on years ago?
Football has the power to call an amnesty and put these chants to bed. Clubs can speak out, the authorities can take an interest and supporters can self-police.Phil Hay
These questions are a magnet for whataboutery: counter points about songs relating to the Munich disaster, the trouble United’s support can been guilty of causing – exhibit A: reports of a vandalised tram before last month’s derby at Sheffield Wednesday – or any bone of contention which reminds someone like me that Leeds are not as pure as the snow. But this is about Savile and I would challenge anyone to identify a slur as ubiquitous as the chant about him. I would challenge those who govern the sport to say if they would sit back and let it ride so freely were the chant in question about Barry Bennell (the former football coach sentenced to 30 years in prison for child sexual abuse).
Many of Savile’s offences were committed at Leeds General Infirmary, on patients between the age of five and 75. I’ve been to the hospital twice in the past few months with a number of United’s players (the club are working in partnership with the Children’s Heart Surgery Fund) and having seen the sickness, the vulnerability and the professionalism there, the only conclusion you can draw is that it takes a rare type of degenerate to take advantage in those circumstances. This is best left to those who properly understand the psychology of offenders but it is grim to think of Savile gleaning pleasure from his notoriety or the banter he is inspiring. Would he have wanted this? Only he could say but he is a long way past deserving the benefit of any doubt.
Football has the power to call an amnesty and put these chants to bed. Clubs can speak out, the authorities can take an interest and supporters can self-police. Even without Saturday’s evidence it is obvious that some supporters need to. Just look at the facts: abuse by Savile was reported in Leeds, Manchester, London, Surrey and Middlesex, in more than 20 different hospitals, in schools and in other places where his celebrity let him do as he pleased.
It is a national scandal of modern times, virtually without comparison, and it deserves to be treated as such. The only thing the game should be doing is leaving him to rot.