The Northern League takes a dim view of what is sometimes called 'industrial language'. Quite right too. After all who wants to spend all afternoon listening to some goon in a Superdry jacket bellowing that the ref is a Bessemer converter?
Sometimes things go a little too far, though. At Brunton Park a couple of Saturdays ago stewards moved in when a middle-aged women with the solid, matronly build of a prize Jersey and the bellow to match got to her feet and yelled that Carlisle’s attempts to defend a corner were “bloody crap”.
The men in the high visibility jackets and the hands free radio mics didn’t take action immediately, it should be said. There was a series of exchanged glances, shrugs and hand waving first. You can see why that would be. It’s very hard to judge what constitutes abusive language these days. Veteran commentators assure us that in days of yore a cry of “bloody crap” would have caused outrage across the land: maids fainting; horses bolting, small children covering their ears and singing psalms and so forth. But that was in a different age, one of more delicate sensibilities, before Woodstock, the Permissive Society and the feminists’ vigorous campaign to gain women the right to fart.
Eventually two stewards came up and sat down near to the “bloody crap” lady. The message was clear: you’re walking a thin line, missus. If she’d attempted an expletive escalation you can bet they’d have been all over her like a fungal infection.
Some will feel that this is all for the good. They will say that a football ground is not a fit place for calling people names; that if you want to hurl abuse at someone anonymously you should do so in a proper environment - the Internet. For some, however, the hi-tech excitement of being able to insult people on five continents without ever leaving your Mum’s house is just not authentic. They like their slagging live and unplugged.
My sympathy is with them. This is because I grew up watching football at Ayresome Park, a place where even the subs booed the team off at half-time. To me loud and vitriolic moaning is as integral a part of the football experience as wagonwheels, saying, “Who told you Bovril was a drink?” and watching men supping lager and urinating simultaneously.
A friend of mine recalls an afternoon in the Bob End during which the bloke sitting in front of him aimed a torrent of abuse at a young Boro midfielder. The fact that the youngster had red-hair was a particular source of vexation to the man. At one point he ended a fulminating diatribe by roaring, “Next time you show yourself in public wear a hat, you ginger twat”. My friend had had enough, “You can’t call him that,” he told the man. The man looked round. His face bore a look of vindictive triumph, “I’ll call him what I like,” he snarled, “I’m his father”.
Despite this uncompromising tradition the people who run Middlesbrough have not always looked favourably on slagging. A few years back the club chose not to renew a local radio station’s contract to cover matches at The Riverside. Rumour on Teesside has it that this was because officials were peeved over the negative comments about the team from expert summariser Bernie Slaven. The club did not give the slightest indication that this was the motive, I should add. It is just what a lot of people around the town think. In football just because a rumour is totally unfounded is insufficient reason for anyone to give up believing it.
Besides, Middlesbrough have taken a draconian attitude to such things in the recent past. You may recall the case of the man expelled from the Riverside Stadium and threatened with a banning order for having the temerity to fall asleep during a game with Arsenal. Eventually a judge ruled in his favour commenting along the lines that it is every Englishman’s inalienable right to nod off while watching the Gunners. Some felt that this quip showed that the judge was out of touch with a modern world in which Arsene Wenger’s team are the very acme of cosmopolitan verve. I prefer to think his attitude mirrored that of my mate Steve who has many times offered the opinion that, “I don’t care how exciting Arsenal are: they’ll always be bloody boring as far as I’m concerned”.
My mate Steve, I should say, is a Newcastle fan and takes a similar view to me on the loud invective issue. This is because his fondest memories of his first visits to St James’ Park are of the man who stood at the front of the Leazes End armed with a bag of stale pasties bought from a cut-price bakery near the ground. During the match the man would tear lumps off the pasties and throw them at the Magpies full-back Frank Clark while yelling 'You're too fucking slow. You're too fucking slow. You're so fucking slow you couldn't catch wor lass - and she waits for men.'
We hear plenty these days about the campaign for the introduction of safe standing areas, but it seems to me that the way things are going we need to launch a campaign for safe slagging areas too. I for one would certainly sit in it. Even if it means listening to someone liken the opposition centre-back to a spinning jenny.