Constantly rising ticket prices, millionaire players isolated from their fan base and alleged racist incidents are just some of the reasons football fans are feeling apathetic toward the professional game at present. At times like this non-league clubs need to maximise their efforts to draw in fans, and also to keep them coming back for more. Whilst some local clubs offer initiatives to coax fans along to games, such as moving games to a Friday night or offering discounted entry for season ticket holders of the bigger clubs, getting the people to come along regularly is proving more of a challenge. For some it just isn’t their cup of tea, whether it is the weather, the different facilities or the perceived lower standard of play. However, a growing complaint, especially amongst those who have taken children to non-league football, is the bad language used by the players and management is not suitable for younger ears.
In 2008 the Northern League launched an initiative whereby any player using what was deemed to be foul language would be shown a red card. The scheme was initially given backing from the Football Association Referees’ Committee, but when it came to be rubberstamped, the FA would not sign off on the plan, although they did accede that the initiate was ‘well intended’. At the time, Northern League Chairman Mike Amos said “We were trying to wrest the game back from the foul mouthed individuals, both on the field and in dugouts, who have driven away spectators and families in such numbers.”
Bad language and football are entwined, and eradicating it is always going to be a difficult proposition. Swearing is part of the vocabulary of nearly everyone in society, and it flows more freely when an individual is invoked in the passion of either playing or watching football. From a game of five-a-side or Sunday morning pub football right up to international level, swearing takes place on a football field. The problem non-league football faces is that often due to sparser crowds and spectators being in a closer proximity to the pitch, swearing from players is more audible than it would be at Wembley Stadium. This isn’t to say that modern stadiums are free from bad language, because this isn’t the case at all. Anyone who has been to a professional match will hear bad language from the people around them. For whatever reason, that is perceived to be more acceptable, or perhaps expected, that bad language will emanate from the terraces (or seats).
Non-league football, at least at the level I have been watching recently, operates vice versa, with the fans rarely using bad language, yet players and club officials being very colourful with their language. Most emotions expressed verbally are accompanied with the F word, and I’ve heard a manager instruct his full-back with the inspirational “don’t let that c**t on the wing take the f**king piss, just kick the sh*thouse up a height.” This tirade was picked up on by the referee who to his credit wasn’t afraid to challenge the manager and advised him to tone down his language.
On the football field, when emotion comes to the fore, the language used is explicit. When attempting to convey an instruction, the use of the F word may well give it more voracity and that is the argument used by those that swear. For many, it is a subconscious act, ingrained in their daily lives and no different to work and home vocabulary.
The majority of fans accept that swearing is part of the game, and are aware that bad language will be heard when they go to a game. However, the problem for a parent wanting to take their children to a non-league game is that they know their son or daughter will hear swear words fairly regularly throughout a game. Whilst it is part and parcel of football, a number of people have commented both in match programs and internet forums that they have decided not to return to non-league football with children as a result of the bad language. Clubs have picked up on this and regularly feature notices in their publications and clubhouses stating their desire to stamp out bad language and abuse of officials. Whilst at Guisborough Town v Newton Aycliffe in November 2011 bad language on the pitch was twice challenged by a tannoy announcement stating that “Guisborough Town are committed to reducing swearing by players, officials and spectators, please respect yourself and others”, and on both occasions this was greeted by a round of applause from the 197 spectators.
Would a zero tolerance approach work in dealing with bad language? The FA Referees’ Committee thought so, as did a number of Northern League clubs when it was suggested. However, in practice, it may be difficult to enforce. Would the referee have discretion? Would it have to be a specific swear word for a red card? Would it have to be audible to everyone or would any swear word result in a red card? As with many other things in refereeing, the inconsistency would likely be a huge source of contention. On the other foot, a few red cards and the accompanying fines would soon spread the message, and players and officials may try to curb any bad language.
At a time when growing numbers of people are becoming fed up of the bubble that top flight football exists in, non-league clubs need to address anything that might put off prospective new fans.