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Opinion – Football must continue its reckoning against tragedy chanting

While tribalism and heckling is part and parcel of the game, tragedy chanting is a stain on English football and needs eradicating. Is that achievable?

English football is steeped in rich history, and bitter rivalries exist across all tiers of the pyramid.

Many clubs, especially in the Premier League, are huge institutions dating back over a century. Whether their ambitions involve title races, mid-table consolidation, or avoiding relegation, each has their own tales of victory and heartache.

On the latter, match-going fans have always goaded rivals with chants about their sporting shortcomings. Whether we’re talking Steven Gerrard’s infamous slip in Liverpool’s 2014 title race, or Manchester United’s 7-0 drubbing at Anfield last season, bragging rights and banter have always been part of the tribal experience in the terraces.

While this tongue-in-cheek aggravation is to be expected in every stadium, in every away end, and every weekend fixture, there is an abhorrent crossing of the line that some spectators resort to which sours the fun for the majority: ‘tragedy chanting’.


What is tragedy chanting?

This colloquial term is used to describe instances where fans actively mock or sing about real life tragedies related to their opposite club – and it isn’t rare.

Just this week, following a match between Manchester United and Burnley FC, a supporter of the away side was charged with causing harassment, alarm, or distress at Old Trafford.

The fan, 44, had been gesturing and chanting about the Munich air disaster of 1958 in which 23 people including eight Manchester United players tragically lost their lives.

This is merely the latest among countless instances over the years, a large portion of which have gone unreported. In my own personal experience of live football, isolated choruses of distasteful chanting have broken out almost every time.

Earlier this month, following two arrests in an FA cup game between Manchester United and Liverpool, in which derogatory jeers about the Hillsborough tragedy were heard, both clubs’ managers called for an end to tragedy chanting prior to their Premier League match.

Other recent examples include vile songs about the death of Emiliano Sala, the Bradford fire, sectarian bickering between Celtic and Rangers, and the incessant chanting of ‘Yids’ at Tottenham – despite its roots in Nazi Germany – among many other things.

Why is this still happening?

Why, when the majority of these chants were most prevalent in the 80s and the cringe-inducing hooligan era, are some fans resorting to this nonsense almost a half-century later?

Moreover, new generations of supporters who weren’t even around during these disasters continue to sing chants passed down through grim fan folklore. Does it come from a place of displaced anger and blowing off steam, or are people genuinely just shitty?

Having grown up around football my entire life, I truly believe tragedy chanting is a sort of group defence mechanism. I’ve been at games and heard the escalation play out like grim theatre.

In the majority of incidents, a small group of idiots will ignite parts of the opposite fanbase, an audible retort will echo back, and then a wall of noise erupts from both sides. Before you know it, pack mentality takes hold and everyone is in the mud together. What a day out for the kids.

I believe the nasty sentiments in the songs would almost never be verbalised in isolation and people scarcely believe their contents, but they’ll gratefully seize the opportunity while camouflaged by a collective, believing they’re ‘backing’ their team for 90 minutes of madness.

Even on social media, a five star hotel for shit-talkers and trolling, you’ll rarely see fans stoop to the level of celebrating the traumatic history of another team.

When this occasionally happens, the offender is generally corrected by all sets of fans and called out. A stream of repulsive point scoring doesn’t tend to break out in the same way as a matchday.

That suggests two things. One, anonymity is key, and two, people will follow what’s deemed to be fashionable.


A logical way to achieve progress

Those points, for me, hold the answer to achieving some progress. How can we, the fans, clean up the nonsense from within and stop accepting trauma chanting as a habitual part of matchdays?

The job of clubs, broadcasters, and the Premier League is to improve methods for reporting incidents and dole out severe punishments. That way, anonymity will be stripped away from would-be agitators. The potential humiliation of stadium bans and court cases, meanwhile, may make some people think twice.

While wrapped up in the heated atmosphere of the stands, however, it’s the job of surrounding fans to hold others accountable. Don’t idly sit by and listen to vile jeers just because someone is wearing the same colour shirt as you. Certainly don’t join in.

It’s almost as though amid tedious debates between who is and isn’t considered a real fan these days, some match goers are going above and beyond in the d*ck measuring contest. It needs calling out for what it is. You’re not an ultra, your behaviour is completely moronic.

I’m resigned to the fact that the chanting will never completely stop. Some people are just drunk and angry, and I fully expect to hear songs about how the RAF shot down German bombers should we draw Germany in the Euros. Sigh.

Nonetheless, I believe a combination of increased action from the Premier League and fan accountability in the terraces can turn the tragedy nonsense down a few decibels.

If you’re United, sing about how you’ve ‘won the lot’. If you’re Arsenal, chant about being ‘by far the best team the world has ever seen.’ Freely mock and annoy, that’s where the fun is, but can we all get out of the gutter please?