For many years, my work has encouraged people to break down social barriers and challenge stigmatising views. Much of this has been done through facilitating dialogue at public events through programmes such as The Human Library and SoMe. However, there are times when the need to challenge inappropriate behaviour comes closer to home.
As the director of a Community Interest Company, The Outsiders, I have one issue with my co-director – he supports Norwich and I support Ipswich! We use this to talk about putting prejudice to one side for more important causes, but we don’t speak for a few days before or after the East Anglian Derby. That takes me on to the purpose of this blog.
On Sunday February 18th, Ipswich played away at Norwich in a game now referred to as ‘The Old Farm’ derby (but not by me!). Even though the game has a midday kickoff, plenty of alcohol is consumed and fans get in the mood by chanting all sorts of songs at each other.
Whilst the language and nature of almost all of the songs doesn’t bother me, there is one that does. A very small minority of Ipswich fans sing a song referencing the fact that an former Norwich player, Justin Fashanu, was gay and chant about his suicide in a celebratory way. At this particular game, three men behind me started to sing this song. I turned to them and asked them to stop. For the next ten minutes, they continually made comments such as ‘I wonder if he’ll let us sing this song’. They were also quite abusive to my wife when she told them to stop singing that song.
Now I have never punched anyone in my life but with this going on behind me, I had a clenched fist and felt very angry. I was ready to take a swing and probably end up getting a kicking for it. I reminded myself that I deal with situations through dialogue, not physical aggression. At half-time, I turned to these guys and told them that I didn’t want to ruin their enjoyment of the game, but that I was going to explain why that song is not OK.
I told them I lost a very close friend to suicide and that last year I did something for the 10th anniversary of his death. He loved football and was a huge Oxford United Fan – Oxford made it to a cup final at Wembley a week before the anniversary so I went in his place because he would have loved to have been there. I bought an Oxford shirt at Wembley, framed it and put it on his grave. These guys said ‘ shit man, we were just trying to wind up the Budgies and just didn’t think about stuff like that’.
Subsequently, when Ipswich scored, these fellas made a point of celebrating with me. At the end of the game, they all shook my hand and apologised and said they would think a bit more about what they sing in future. It made me realise that verbal communication is better than throwing a punch, even though that can be the instinctive thing we sometimes feel when provoked and angry.
I’d like to think that they won’t sing that song again, and that they might challenge any other fans that do.
I felt like a stronger man for taking this approach than I would have by acting on my initial instinct.