Comment: The football versus rugby fan experience

Date published: January 11 2018

Why do you think a rugby crowd is so different from a football crowd? Even if it isn’t that different in demographics and profile, the spectator experience certainly is.

Recently, I was at Easter Road to watch Hibs play Celtic. As usual, there was a huge police presence in and around the ground. There were plenty of stewards on duty too. There was the occasional sectarian song from the Glasgow club’s fans and as usual, at most football games of any size, there was an air of aggression towards players and officials. Lots of swearing, jabbing of fingers and making of w*nking gestures towards opposition supporters. There was also a lot of fans whose first instinct, when Hibs scored, was to turn to the Celtic fans and abuse them. Lovely.

It finished 2-2 and as we left, one whole street was blocked off with a seven foot metal wall, erected when the match was being played, presumably to keep exiting Celtic fans away from Hibs supporters, forcing us to take a big diversion loop to get back home. That’s some war zone loveliness for you, huh?

This is typical for a football match anywhere, of any size or import. Basically, football fans are not trusted not to monster each other. So we’re all on CCTV in and around the ground, alcohol is not served in Scottish stadiums for the same reason and the whole area around the ground is treated as a potential problem waiting to happen. Riot police and vans are everywhere. Pubs often have ‘no football colours’ statements on their doors, but none have ‘no rugby colours’. We all know why.

By contrast, I was at Edinburgh rugby club to see them play Southern Kings, Now, the capacity of Myreside is only about 6,000 so the scale and cultural heft of the event is admittedly far, far smaller, but aside from the sheer numbers, the experience couldn’t have been more different. We had a few single malts during the game to keep the bitter cold of a frosty night at bay. The atmosphere was good-natured, with applause for quality opposition play not unusual and of course, fans of both sides intermingled. There was no extra police presence that I could discern. Of course, I repeat, this was very small scale compared to Hibs but in my experience it is the just same from amateur rugby at Heriots, all the way up to the Calcutta Cup at Murrayfield and it always has been. No-one worries it’s all going to kick off if you go to a big rugby match, but it is always in your mind that it will, at or on the way, to the football.

And it’s not just my perspective from here in Edinburgh, a friend was telling me of how 81,000 England and Australian fans co-existed peacefully at Twickenham in November, even though many were “clearly seven sheets to the wind”.

So the contrast between the two sports is really remarkable. Football fans are treated like dangerous wild beasts, rugby crowds are treated like grown-ups. Although there is very little trouble at football games these days, it feels as though this is simply because of how heavily it is policed. If football supporters could be trusted to behave decently, segregation would not exist, but at no game of any size would fans not be kept apart. We are never trusted to stand shoulder to shoulder until you get down to the fifth and sixth tiers. In a supposedly civilised land, that’s simply incredible.

Of course, in football, there is a long history of violence between fans. In fact, when I was at Hampden Park to see Hibs play Ross County in the League Cup final, some Hibs fans were even fighting with each other! And without being overly judgemental, they were some of the most dunderheeded people I’ve had to misfortune to witness. Many of them clearly three generations of the same family. I don’t see those people at rugby.

It’s often said that rugby union is a middle-class sport and that this explains why people behave better, but I don’t believe this is true, not least because we all know a few middle-class people who are absolute rotters and behave terribly. It’s also an insult to the vast majority of decent working class football fans who wouldn’t dream of putting a brick in someone’s face. And also, while there are some very middle-class people at the rugby – what I would call the red trouser brigade – mostly it isn’t that sort, it’s just regular people. The peaceful posho element is very overstated, as is the violent working class. I don’t believe we’re all that different.

It’s sometimes said that the aggressive on-pitch mano-a-mano nature of rugby somehow dissolves the urge for violence or aggression in the spectators. This seems a bit far-fetched as football is physical, athletic and can be aggressive too.

Others have speculated that footballers set a bad example by swearing at refs and generally throwing strops and trying to cheat all the time. That this facilitates and normalises similar behaviour amongst some fans, as players and crowd get caught into a self-feeding emotional loop. That, I feel, is getting closer to one of the core issues. Because it must largely be down to history and expectation. The totally different crowd experiences must be as a result of copying behavioural expectations and standards.

Maybe football is trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of negativity and aggression, in the same way rugby is trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of positivism and respect. It is not explainable in any other way as to why we’ve ended up with two popular sports being so divergent. I look forward to the day being in a football crowd is as enjoyable as being in a rugby crowd, and when going to and from a big game doesn’t involve skirting around metal barriers and being herded by riot police. But I’ll be honest with you, I’m not holding my breath.

by John Nicholson