Mickey Blue Eyes
"Men think in herds, go mad in herds, but recover their senses one by one." CHARLES MACKAY.
Virtually everybody remembers the first time they attended a footy match. If the details are hazy, the impact isn't - a big green field, the smell of grass, team colours, movement of play, the crowd, the stadium......so many people gathered, the roar, adults behaving and shouting in ways you thought impossible. It is one of our Rites of Passage even if it puts some off the game and its fans for life. It is deeply impressive one way or the other. It never leaves you.
For me, watching football crowds can be as absorbing as "people-watching" of individuals, especially if the match itself is a cone of extruded dog coils. But trying to discover a behavioural formula is a waste of time. Human nature is far too fluid despite its depressingly predictable traits. In the end you cannot be absolutely sure how people will act. There are too many variables. There have been limitless academic papers on social gathering, crowd psychology and mass propaganda but I won't reference any of them here. Some are obviously the basis for police mass control. Instead I will limit myself to general and highly subjective observations on the behaviour of football crowds. I should make it clear too I have contempt for mob action and its paranoid self-styled leaders and their short lived "celebrity" (though there is always some comedy when you give these serial feral meffs a verbal rogering. There is endless fun to be had at their expense if you can be bothered to pull their tails). I have similar distaste for anyone who willingly sinks into a gang and follows its behaviour unquestioningly, which is why I will never support the return of standing terraces. It makes gang cowardice and concealment too easy. Moreover I believe this opinion is underpinned by a large majority of fans. The aim for most is to indulge their hobby, not tolerate mob Nazis or drunk/junky yoyos with a chip on their shoulder and a void in their head.
Of course, there is a difference between a crowd and a mob. A crowd is merely a gathering of people in the same place, usually good humoured or at least tolerant if noisy and occasionally angry. A mob is an unthinking gang with a single purpose and combined action, usually unprincipled and prone to physical or verbal intimidation. In short, little more than overgrown school yard bullies. In my opinion most fans are crowd members who want their team to win, but not at any price and not with any violence on or off the pitch. If the game allows itself to be subject to any kind of mob control then it will not be worth having. The lessons of the seventies, eighties and early nineties are still raw and well documented. There are no excuses left and we shouldn't seek any.
But anecdotal evidence and common sense observation shows football crowds are capable of variable collective moods. I think this was never better illustrated than a few seasons ago during our home match with Manchester United. Phil Neville tackled Cristiano Ronaldo and the Portuguese genius did one of his infamous cheating dying swan acts. At the time United had total command of the game and were running us in circles, but had only a single goal lead. Ronaldo's obvious phoniness was somehow missed by the referee, who promptly booked Neville. The crowd was outraged in unison and awoke from mass slumber to shout their team on. Understandably, up to then there had been long periods of home silence. Amazingly, and not for the first time at Goodison, the Mancs went to defensive pieces in an uproarious closing phase. We equalised and then should have won it. At one point the whole Manc team looked genuinely afraid, though that notion might be attributable to wishful thinking on my part. What is not in doubt is the part played by the crowd in the turnaround. It earned us a draw.
The above account also examples harmless crowd spontaneity. It was in direct response to action on the field and in that respect was almost organic. It showed too why most Evertonians are proud of the fact that they don't need or want anything more than their own voice. Not for the first time it gave the lie to nonsensical claims that you need standing spectators waving ludicrous banners and flags and singing vacuous songs to create so-called "atmosphere." Remember too that wonderful home game V Fiorentina? Remember the TV camera shot of a bewildered Italian fan as he witnessed wild crowd scenes after Mikky's unforgettable equaliser? There were no stiff upper lips Englishmen at Goodison that night. Nor were any mob or gang leaders evident. As always, they weren't wanted; in any case they would have submerged under a tidal wave of genuine mass joy and enthusiasm. The event worked its spontaneous magic, one of the best reasons to have footy as a hobby. But it is a very thin dividing line.
So at what point does a crowd become a mob? For instance, is Evertonian mass abuse - and it is the only word - of Wayne Rooney acceptable? Was the hounding of David Beckham acceptable after he was sent off V Argentina in World Cup 1998? We have all heard the term "The crowd turned ugly" when a crowd has reacted badly in that way. There are also plenty of formal records of substantial organised thuggery in the twenty-odd years before all seater stadia were made mandatory. If it is not possible to be precise on a universal instant of transformation it is certainly feasible to know it when you see and hear it. Some people literally lose their sanity, if only for a moment and against their better instincts. We have all been there in one insignificant form or another, the price you pay for being human. Nobody is immune, and the younger you are the more vulnerable you are to its worst aspects. Then again, advanced age was no bar to the Rangers madmen who surrounded a fallen Manchester policeman and literally tried to kick the man to death because a large TV screen failed and sparked a city centre riot involving many hundreds during the 2008 UEFA Cup Final. Mercifully this last example is now extremely rare but there was a time when its equivalent happened every Saturday in our city centres.
Few decent, civilised fans will forget the organised thugs who almost destroyed the game in the period roughly 1970 - 1990. Inevitably it led to an increase in racism too. The madness went on so long it was bound to create a backlash. Sure enough, we got all seater stadia (though that was a blessing), physical segregation of home from visiting fans, limits on visiting support, ticket restrictions and even control of how you travelled to away games, all of it enshrined in authoritarian laws. It became as draconian as a democratic society could get without verging on open fascism. Some police forces and individual policemen almost got out of hand. In fact some did, particularly in the north east. Even now, lessons learned, an away game is a severe strain of your good will if you get herded between rows of unwelcoming, tense or resentful faces atop body armour while a camera snoops on everybody, and maybe police dogs snap away too. Even now some police forces deliberately outfit in Kevlar to look worse than a phalanx of Nazi brown shirts. It mostly cleared our stadia and streets - aberrations excepted - of the very worst behaviour, but at a terrible price to freedom of movement and expression. The pendulum may have swung, but it rests uneasily. This means there is still widespread deep suspicion of a return of the BNP mob mentality, which is all the excuse some police control freaks need. And that is where we stand today.
If all seater stadia mitigated the worst confrontational aspects, physical segregation only emphasised the most notorious chauvinist behaviour of some fans. True, it largely eliminated violence but it also retrenched tiresome regionalism and its ridiculous blind hatreds. In and near segregated away sections there developed a strain of concentrated ritualised abuse that is supposed to be "funny" but is in fact a sort of perpetual swinish soap opera. It can't even be described as a cathartic release valve. By now too often it resembles the two groups of apes at the water hole in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001. Genuine humour is notable only for its rarity. But it does exist. Example, a few years ago we were playing a midlands team at Goodison and a few in the away section started with the tedious schooly doggerel of, "Shall we sing a song for you." Without skipping a beat a lone, world-weary voice in the Park End shouted back, "Sing anything you like - so long as it's not by fuckn Slade." It was a crushing moment. Then in our last home game with the Mancs somebody in the Street End produced a fully inflated sex doll, presumably intended for Wayne Rooney if he showed up. Eventually it was removed by a broadly grinning WPC. Generally, though, you don't get much of that these days because fans are just too busy howling garbage at each other. Usually it is a big day out for the away fans and it can make some of them rather desperate to get something - anything - out of the trip. If they can't get a footy result they can at least gouge some kind of sad compensation from sterile yowling. This is often called "passion." In fact it is anything but. It is a staged enema.
There have been some interesting if doomed attempts to harness or encourage crowd mood at Goodison. In the closing years of the Peter Johnson tenure a band was located in the Lower Bullens Road; it didn't last long despite a brave effort by its organisers and musicians. On other occasions there have been designated "flag days" during which fans are allowed to bring and fly their own flags to add some colour. Both attempts failed because most Evertonians simply don't like being corralled that way and failed to respond. They never have. On another occasion someone had the unbright idea of playing "Land of Hope and Glory" and other nationalist music over the PA system. It went down like the proverbial lead balloon and was never repeated. Also, we have all marvelled at equally doomed verbal shenanigans by the pitch side announcer. I am pleased to say that generally most Evertonians remain a law unto themselves, which is also why they are usually lousy at singing except when roused by match play. Typically, there are no usable footy words to the Z Cars music. When Evertonians sing it often comes out as a half-finished sotto voce growl. It isn't at all unusual to have long periods of quiet at Goodison games. And it has been that way for as long as I can remember.
Despite the bad points I suppose strictly relatively it is better to have fans hurling abuse rather than punches or worse. Banners and flags are mostly harmless too as long as nobody takes them seriously or treats them like swastikas or regimental colours. But what does it say about us fans if we tolerate the worst of it? Why should there still be a risk of uneasy tension? Why should we leave so much control in the hands of the police? After all, it wasn't always like that. There really was a time long, long ago when fans mixed and trouble was at a minimum. How sad the last generation and this one have never experienced it, let alone conceived its possibility. Indoctrination by incessant, stupid chauvinism has ensured too many are incapable of laughing at themselves and the ebb and flow of football fortunes. We would not need segregation if it were otherwise. But like South African and American apartheid it has only hardened minority attitudes and prejudices.
However, all is not lost. We should not despair or assume the situation will never change. However unlikely it may seem at the moment, the pendulum can swing back if sufficient fans decide to make it so. Much will depend too on police attitudes and methods - these are bound to vary in accordance with local behaviour. Until these two aspects fuse deliberately or spontaneously the situation will probably continue as it is. We can still hope. Crowd behaviour everywhere will always be fascinating and humorous as well as potentially nasty. History shows the wrong trail leads to the Coliseum and gladiatorial evil or to a Nuremberg rally. It also shows that eventually the worst petered out or was eliminated. Bad emperors were replaced by good emperors, brain dead mobs replaced by free-moving crowds. Good humour is still universally preferred to sour nit-picking.
One thing remains unchanged. As I said at the start that is how a first sight of the spectacle affects our youngsters, which is why I always ensured I led the way in for our family nippers' first match. I always turned around for the once-in-a-lifetime sight of their eyes widening to amazed saucers. That too is unforgettable. Then you knew the torch was passed and they would make of it what they wanted. You did your bit. The rest is up to them.