The Football Lads Alliance made its shocking appearance in June with a 10,000-strong march against Muslim “extremism”. Brian Richardson looks at the history of football and racist organisations.
Those of us who are football fans invariably approach the start of a new season with a mixture of optimism and trepidation. The hope that our team will win a trophy sits alongside a fear of relegation or failure to qualify for a prestigious competition. As the 2017-18 season began, however, there was real concern about a significant development that has emerged during the summer and away from the stadiums.
The Football Lads Alliance (FLA) erupted onto the scene when it held a march from St Paul’s Cathedral to London Bridge on 24 June. More than 10,000 attended a gathering that culminated in a wreath-laying at the site of the terrorist atrocity that occurred at Borough Market on 3 June. The march was cleverly constructed. The main organisers were representatives of the notorious football “firms” — primarily groups of men who have less interest in what occurs on the pitch than in physically fighting the firms of rival clubs. Given this background, there was an inherent danger that any collective gathering of the firms might descend into internecine fighting. The organisers of the London Bridge vigil avoided this by discouraging attendees from wearing their team colours. Instead they were encouraged to consider themselves as all lads together “united” against extremism.
The focus on opposing extremism appealed to many people, understandably so. It was clear, however, that the focus was almost entirely on so called “Islamic extremism”. In the event, however, things were not quite so straightforward. The FLA march took place just five days after an attack upon the Finsbury Park mosque in north London during Ramadan, which left one man dead and injured a further ten people. There was little mention of this in the speeches at the London Bridge rally. Nor was there any mention of the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox immediately prior to the 2016 EU referendum by the “Britain First” boasting Nazi Thomas Mair. In contrast, and in addition to the symbolism of a protest at the site of supposed “Islamic terrorism”, a considerable amount of time was devoted to tirades against Islam.
Furthermore, a number of the organisers and speakers at the event were revealed to have shockingly racist and violent backgrounds. They included John Meighan, a man banned from every football ground in Britain for his violent activities, and Toni Bugle, a recent election candidate for the English Democrats.
Elsewhere it is clear that erstwhile members of fascist groups that have been smashed off the streets in recent decades, such as the BNP, National Front and Combat 18, were present. Others have been observing things wistfully and have vowed to mobilise the next time the FLA puts out the call. Among these is Tommy Robinson, founder of the English Defence League.
That next event — another London demonstration — on 7 October coincides with a break for international matches. All the indications on Facebook, fans’ forums and other social media are that it will be sizeable, with hundreds of coaches having supposedly been booked from across the country.
This development presents a real challenge to those of us who love the game and who wish to keep racism out of our stadiums and to stamp it out of wider society. I grew up watching Arsenal in the mid-1980s at a time when black players such as Paul Davis, Raphael Meade and David Rocastle were just beginning to break into the first team. The team was nowhere near as successful as it is today and those players regularly suffered racist abuse from their own fans if the team played poorly.
After living away from the south east for years, the atmosphere at Arsenal’s old High bury stadium was completely transformed by the time I moved to London in the 1990s. The same was true at clubs across the country. There were two main reasons for this.
First, the increasing number and influence of black players had a significant effect. At Arsenal, Ian Wright was the darling of the fans. Elsewhere increasing numbers of black British and foreign players have changed the appearance, culture and quality of English football. Today many leading teams have Muslim players in their ranks such as N’goro Kane, Sadio Mane and Riyad Mahrez.
Second was the intervention of anti-racists inside and outside the grounds. Progressive fans organised petitions, leafleting sessions and established fanzines that exposed and challenged the racists. Campaigns such as Kick Racism Out of Football and Show Racism the Red Card (SRTRC) were established involving fans and bodies such as the Commission for Racial Equality under the leadership of Herman Ouseley. They succeeded in forcing the Football Association and the clubs themselves to address the most virulent and obvious forms of racism.
These were important, positive developments, but structural problems remain within the game. Neither the FA nor Kick It Out covered themselves in glory when the then England captain John Terry was accused of racially abusing his England teammate Rio Ferdinand’s brother Anton during a Premier League game. Ron Atkinson, who had done so much to promote black players as manager of West Bromwich Albion in the 1970s, disgraced himself on TV by calling Chelsea’s defender Marcel Desailly a “lazy fucking thick nigger”.
In recent weeks it has emerged that Nigerian born striker Eni Aluko was paid £80,000 by the FA when she accused England Women’s team manager Mark Sampson of racism. Aluko, winner of 102 caps, was suddenly dropped for supposedly “unlioness behaviour” and has since been excluded from the national squad.
Racists and fascists are desperate to gain a toehold in football. Real fans must be determined to ensure that any attempt is crushed underfoot. It is for this reason that we must warn fellow fans of the dangers of the “Unite Against Extremism” initiative. One wonders, for example, what appeal a “lads alliance” has for those women who make up 25 percent of regular attendees at matches these days.
Stand Up to Racism has rightly raised concerns and organised leafleting sessions at a number of clubs. This activity has succeeded in putting the FLA on the defensive. It has been forced into announcing it will lay a wreath at the site of the Finsbury Park attack. Far-right groups have been told to stay away from the October demonstration, and Meighan has apparently declared that the FLA’s motto is “No racism, no violence”.
This is important but the hard work must continue up to 7 October and beyond. Building alliances with fans’ groups, Kick It Out, SRTRC, Football Against Racism in Europe, the Professional Footballers Association and other unions at our clubs can help to ensure that racism and fascism are booted out and our stadiums remain hostile terrain for those who seek to sow division.
"The EDL quickly morphed from expressing dissatisfaction with extremism into being an openly Islamophobic organisation with Nazis at its core"
Weyman Bennett recalls lessons from the early days of the English Defence League
The Football Lads alliance is, like the English Defence League in its beginning, neither fish nor fowl. The EDL said it was against racism and allowed all colours to join. The notion was that it was against “extremist Muslims”.
The EDL brought Islamophobes together with football fans, and others who assumed that it was a progressive movement, simply against extremism. In its early days in 2009 it was often portrayed as a genuine, white working class movement, which was somehow necessary.
Thousands joined the EDL at first, because the message of being against extremism, uniting against hate, seemed positive. But it quickly morphed from expressing dissatisfaction with how returning British soldiers were treated by a handful of Muslims in Luton into being an openly Islamophobic and right wing organisation with Nazis at its core.
The art for anti-fascists was to separate the softer racist elements from the smaller Nazi core. This could only be done in practice. The nature of the beast only became apparent as the marches proceeded. In Stoke in January 2010 the EDL attacked multiracial couples and attacked mosques.
Initially the EDL made a concerted effort to attract Sikhs and other Asian organisations and black people to participate in their demonstrations. And the EDL didn’t specifically attack trade unions, as classical fascist movements always do in the end. They took the existing Islamophobia in society and tried to march it onto the street. But this is a group of people who are not qualified to discuss who is an extremist or not. And once they’re on the streets in their thousands the danger is that a harder core starts to develop and starts to march for other things.
The march organisers of the EDL used to say they did not know where they were going at the beginning; they just wanted to march — “We’ll march where we want.”
This is a danger that is inherent in the FLA. We had to be very careful at the beginning of the EDL to engage in debate with football fans about why we are not against working class white people marching — in fact we wanted them to march. We agreed when people said they weren’t getting representation, but we argued that the leadership of that movement was the trade unions, the Labour Party, the left groups.
There was an inherent hostility in the EDL to feminism, to multiculturalism, and this seems to be repeated inside the FLA. Why is it all men? A quarter of people who attend football matches and support football clubs are women.
We have to raise our concerns about the focus on Muslims. We must defend Muslims’ right to worship anywhere they want, and not accept the idea that there’s anything fundamentally wrong with Islam. Muslims must be welcome in the terraces, and in our towns.
Secondly we are going to continue the work that’s been taking place for over 30 years on the terraces. Thirty years ago you were confronted by open racism — bananas being thrown onto the field at black football players, and so on. We are in a far better position today, and the racists are in a far weaker position. That’s why the FLA has been so nervous about coming across as racist. Racism is no longer respectable.
Yet many of the fellow travellers of this movement are sectarians and racists. We cannot underestimate the seriousness of the growth of such an organisation in today’s atmosphere.
There’s been a polarisation to the left — Corbyn, and the growth of Momentum. And there’s also been a polarisation to the right. The same dissatisfaction exists and the potential for a far-right movement that’s racist-populist or even further to the right can develop.
It’s important that trade unionists and anti-racists understand this threat and analyse it as it develops. On 7 October, when the FLA are set to march again, we have to come out and raise our banner to defend the right of Muslims to feel comfortable in our society, just as we did in the 1970s when black people were under attack, or in the 1930s when Jewish people were the target.
This will require both courage and understanding. We do not dismiss all the people marching with the FLA, but we resist the racist message of the hard core. We have to be prepared but not afraid. Spinoza once said, “Don’t laugh, don’t cry, but understand”, and, we must add, act.
Stand Up To Racism has announced it will take a positive anti-racist message to Central London that day Details here
They are also calling on people to leaflet football grounds around the country in the run up to the 7 October on the weekends of 16-17 and 23-24 September with a leaflet downloadable from their website or that you can order from firstname.lastname@example.org