Take the train, expect the pain
I’ll never forget the words: “Fuck off you P*** twat”. Hurled by a football fan at an Asian ticket collector on a train, after a match in the North, bound for London. All the ticket collector had politely asked for was for the fan to pay the £5 weekend upgrade from standard to first class, in which he was sitting.
Yes, it was many years ago. The upgrade can now range from £10 to £20.
And yet what struck me was the sheer hostility of the supporter, sadly echoed by so many of his mirth-stricken colleagues as the isolated insult became a torrent of abuse. It was a toxic combination of total disregard for authority and unfettered racism. As sickening a mix as you can come across, then or now.
I did think about intervening, despite my confirmed status as a grade-one coward. I mean, why should I have to shell out for the upgrade when the yobs were declining to do so? But I sat back quietly, ashamed not so much because I felt aggrieved at having to pay extra when others would not but because of the horrendous treatment that the train official had received.
But it taught me an early lesson. Very rarely engage with the football fan on public transport, especially after a game when their emotions are scrambled by defeat and/or a day on the lash. Actually, after a victory or a draw, they can be pretty gross, too. In fact, just don’t attempt to mingle at all. It’s just not worth it.
Many fans hate journos, many journos dislike fans. They exist in parallel universes in which their opinions bear little relation to each other. Praise their team and your views, guaranteed, will be ignored; slam their team and, guaranteed, you will be on the receiving end of the most vicious Troll-like vitriol.
In the good old days, letters were the norm. And nine out of ten slagged you. Let’s face it, no one really gets off on writing what a great piece you wrote. Early on, I replied to everyone – just glad of their interest – but I soon gave up as the post took on a more sinister tone. Just who was the tosser? Me or them? I made my choice.
Much the same since the introduction of the internet. Indeed, more so. The criticism – most of it so bravely anonymous – has degenerated to such a level that you only need to read the first few lines of the comment before swiftly moving on. The era of mutually respectful fan-journo debate, if it ever really existed, has gone.
Of travelling with fans, I have also had numerous pleasant experiences. Yes, some on trains, but mostly on planes en route abroad, and on arrival abroad as well, when the domestic tribal enmities have been left at home and the quick-fix adrenaline is absent. The experience is usually spread over two or three days – friendly, relaxed, plenty of time to chew the fat in a considered manner, in a sidestreet bar or restaurant, and amicably ponder widely differing opinions.
But, as a journo, if you let the train take the strain back in the UK on any given Saturday, even nowadays, never get out your laptop if a fan is afoot. “Who the fuck do you work for?” is the oft-repeated opening gambit. Reply that it’s a tabloid and you will be abused verbally and possibly worse; reply that it’s a broadsheet and you will be accused of being a toffee-nosed ponce. But at least, as a ponce, you will probably escape without further recrimination.
Once, in my teenage years, I was a fan. I travelled on the old “football specials”, organised by clubs and the rail network of the time until they were stopped. Because the trains got, er, wrecked. Often by supporters from the same club. So what’s it like to travel on a train with, say, two or three groups of rival club followers whose teams just happen to have been playing in the same region on the same day? OMG … please, I just don’t want to go there.
OK, I will. It normally goes something like this. Cordial banter in the bar carriage about respective teams’ results that day, chit-chat gets louder and chants break out, chants get offensive, scuffles ensue, train gets stopped at a station for police to attend. I once returned home on a South-North train that got stopped three times in mid-journey to remove offenders. Nice going, lads.
I do, though, still remember the odd bit of correspondence and one of my most charming letters, received after I had traversed a European country for almost a month covering a major championship finals for my paper. I had written a regular tongue-in-cheek column and a certain lady of a certain age in the West Country felt moved to write, in the midst of a serious illness, that she had so enjoyed my missives and that it had somehow helped to ease her pain.
It was almost tear-jerking. I felt humbled; and I still do today. What a lovely lady who, I suspect, is no longer with us. Perhaps also the Asian gentleman who so bravely stood up to those thugs who not only refused to pay what they owed but also felt the urge to harangue him because of the colour of his skin.
Today, whenever I can and despite the ever-present threat of motorway delay, I prefer to drive to and from games. Keeping my views to myself and not having to listen to those of the foul-mouthed, one-eyed fans. It’s much safer that way.