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From toe-hold to no hold: football and the EDL

Jim Keoghan looks at the campaign to kick the English Defence League out of football

November 28, 2011
9 min read

Since the English Defence League (EDL) first appeared in 2009, it has sought to make its presence felt among the country’s football fans. And although football might be a more tolerant sport than it once was, there remains a small element within the game that has responded to their overtures.

The majority of these supporters can be found among the ranks of the hooligan ‘firms’ that are still associated with some football clubs. These first emerged from the ‘casual’ sub-culture of the 1970s and 1980s as a way for fans who enjoyed post-match violence to organise themselves along team lines. Although these firms are much diminished today, some have survived, with several even enjoying continuity in membership.

According to Paul Jenkins, north west regional organiser for Unite Against Fascism (UAF), these fans represented a readymade army that the EDL could unite and organise: ‘Not all of the men in these firms – and it is just men – share the views of the EDL. But there’s enough that do for the EDL to have representation at several clubs. These are the people who are trying to bring racist and Islamophobic chants and language onto the terraces and who come out to protest and instigate violence on the streets with the EDL. At the moment you’re not talking about massive numbers, but the problem is that these people can be used to recruit other football supporters, something they are increasingly trying to do.’

What’s happening today has parallels with the 1970s and 1980s. Then it was the National Front (NF) organising among football supporters and managing to gain representation at several clubs, such as West Ham, Chelsea, Leeds and Millwall. Much of this representation was also drawn from the ranks of hooligan firms. Both the ‘Chelsea headhunters’ and the ‘Leeds United service crew’ possessed links with the NF.

Along with wider societal changes in attitudes towards race and religion, from the late 1980s onwards several factors combined to diminish the problems faced by the sport. The increasing prominence of ethnic minority players, the rise in the number of women, children and ethnic minority supporters attending games and a more aggressive approach by the police and the clubs in targeting hooligans (such as banning certain fans from a ground) all played a part in changing the face of the game. These have been complemented by a succession of anti-racist campaigns, such as Show Racism the Red Card and Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football, as well as anti-racism community work undertaken by the clubs themselves.

The EDL has also so far failed to make any significant impact among fans at England matches, despite this being an area where the far right has had a presence in the past. ‘I can honestly say that I have never seen any evidence of the EDL at England games over the last few years,’ says Mark Perryman of the England Supporters Club. ‘A lot of football hooligans are already banned from these games and few real fans would risk getting a banning order because of any suspected involvement with the EDL.’

The England team has also gone to great lengths to take a stand against racism – not least because they have been the targets of racist chanting and abuse at away games such as the recent Euro 2012 qualifier in Bulgaria. Both the manager Fabio Capello and captain John Terry made strong public statements on the subject before September’s game against Wales, where the team wore ‘Kick It Out’ armbands to stress their commitment to anti-racism.

But although the overall picture has improved, there remains inconsistency across the sport. In the lower divisions and in non-league football, a lack of adequate stewarding and enforcement of banning orders has meant that racism and religious intolerance remain more of a problem.

‘This is why the EDL has targeted clubs outside the top divisions,’ says national UAF organiser Paul Sillett. ‘In the lower leagues the EDL feels more confident in speaking out and organising.’

Worrying presence

While the EDL as yet is confined to the margins, the fact that it has been able to establish a presence at all is worrying. ‘They’ve got a toe-hold and a message that a lot of people give time to,’ says Paul Sillett. He believes that unlike the simplistic racist views of the NF in the past, elements of the EDL’s message today find an audience across a much wider swath of society.

‘The EDL portrays itself as a protest movement against militant Islam and excessive immigration, two perspectives that find sympathy among sections of our society,’ Sillet says. ‘There are plenty of football supporters, specifically young lads who like the appeal of being part of a gang and have an affinity with the patriotism that the EDL wrap themselves up in, who are going to be open to the superficially persuasive message that the EDL provide, specifically when they see aspects of it mirrored in the tabloids and echoed by certain leading politicians. These are people who might not consider themselves racist and would never use conventionally racist language but who nevertheless find the anti-Islam rhetoric of the EDL acceptable. This means that although the EDL might be confined to the hooligan fringes at the moment, it will not necessarily stay that way.’

According to Gav Sutherland from Show Racism the Red Card (SRRC), the rise of the EDL has to be taken seriously. ‘The increase in popularity of the EDL is having a big impact, particularly their targeting of young people. As an educational campaign that uses professional footballers to talk to young people about racist and religious intolerance, we will continue to do our best to tackle the myths and lies about Islam and Muslims that the EDL is trying to spread.’

These educational campaigns would be immeasurably aided if there were more British-Asian football role models. But there are only a handful of British-Asian professionals playing in England and they make up less than one in 100 young players in football academies.

At a club level, although many mirror the work undertaken by SRRC in their own communities, as yet there has been no specific action against the EDL, even among clubs where the EDL has been active. Instead, the strongest reaction is coming from the supporters themselves, who in the absence of any meaningful response from the teams they follow have decided to take matters into their own hands.

‘One of the most pleasing aspects of this is the way some existing casual firms have taken on the EDL,’ says Paul Sillett. He says that although the link between the far right and the hooligans is an established one, it’s not the whole story.

‘Back in the 1970s not all hooligans were racist. There were examples of mixed-race hooligan firms and examples of casuals that organised themselves against the NF, something that is also happening today. At West Ham their firm is active against the presence of the EDL.’

Fans fight back

Ordinary supporters are getting involved too. Across the country, fans are part of a growing grass-roots action against the far right. Bolton supporter Lindsay Bessells is one of many fans who joined with UAF last season in a concerted campaign to counter the presence of the EDL. ‘I’d begun seeing an increasing number of men at the Reebok stadium wearing EDL t-shirts and began to realise that this hooligan element in our fan base was partly responsible for the rallies that were happening locally, and for much of the violence that was associated with them. I felt that I had to get involved and do something to stop their influence spreading.’

By mobilising and engaging supporters the campaign has sought to mirror what the EDL has tried to do. But whereas the EDL has been appealing to a minority element within football, the anti-EDL campaign has been preaching to the majority, according to Linda Jones, who leafleted outside Bradford City’s ground.

‘We’ve leafleted a few times and now and then you might get people refusing to take one or telling you that they are sympathetic to the EDL but in general most fans support what we are doing. As in wider society, football fans as a whole are much more tolerant than they used to be. They recognise the EDL for what it is, just another incarnation of the far right – something that has no place in the modern game.’

This supporter-led action harks back to the late 1970s, when, in the absence of any action by the football authorities or the clubs, fans began to fight back against the influence of the far right themselves. This was often done in an organised way, with Anti-Nazi League groups being established by football fans at 20 or more British football grounds. And this more formal organisation is already evident today with the creation of anti-fascist organisations at clubs such as Leicester, Aston Villa and Tranmere.

‘Following the formation of the EDL we began to see the development of something worryingly reminiscent of the 1970s. It struck us that the best way to counter this was to organise properly, providing a better chance of countering the EDL’s propaganda,’ says Bidston Moss of the Tranmere Rovers Anti Fascist group (TRAF).

TRAF has already undertaken a mass leafleting of the ground and organised a number of anti-fascist social events in Birkenhead. The group has ambitious ideas for the future, with a possible outdoor festival and large evening events planned.

‘Our overall aim is to appeal to our supporters to resist sly right-wing “come-ons” from these far-right bigots,’ continues Bidston. ‘The EDL sing from the same hymn sheet as other far-right groups. Its demos are dominated by Nazi-saluting thugs and chants of “dirty Muslim bastards” and “we hate Pakis more than you” are evident whenever they congregate. This is the reality that football supporters need to understand – and it’s a message that more and more of us fans are beginning to spread.’

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