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‘Football should be an extended family’: the fans turning the tide on racism | Football

Manchester City’s 22 June match against Burnley – a brisk, 5-0 dismantling in the ghostly expanse of a spectator-free Etihad Stadium – will not go down as a vintage contest of the Covid-disrupted 2019/20 Premier League season. But it will, regardless, live on ignominiously in the memory. Shortly after the kick-off of a game that had begun with players, staff and officials taking a knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, the whirr of a light aircraft was heard overhead. Eyes went up. And there it was: a chartered plane towing a banner that read: “WHITE LIVES MATTER BURNLEY”.

The public outcry was swift (Burnley promised lifetime bans for those involved; the alleged key organiser, Jake Hepple, was sacked by the engineering company he worked for). But for those who have been paying attention to the atmosphere around domestic football in recent years – a climate that has seen a Brighton supporter jailed for eight weeks after screaming racist obscenities during a Tottenham game; and an FA Cup fourth round qualifier abandoned because Yeovil Town fans were hurling slurs and objects at Haringey Borough’s black players – this incident was both wholly shocking and grimly predictable.

That is certainly the view of Andrew Bucknall, a Manchester City fan who was watching on television that day. “We’ll always have people who are stupid, ignorant and don’t want to know,” says Bucknall, who is the black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) community representative for the club’s official fan network. “It’s probably been better, in a way, that fans haven’t been at games because people can take the knee without anyone booing.”

Members of fan network City Matters, including (third from right) BAME community rep Andrew Bucknall, at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium. Photograph: Demar Sterling/The Guardian

In the 2019/20 football season, there was a 53% rise in reported racist incidents. But there is an under-reported counternarrative to this vision of the modern fan as white, male and prone to fits of hate speech. It could be seen, before lockdown, in the sight of 50 Indian men in Derby County shirts streaming towards Pride Park with a Punjabi-language flag; in two black supporters outside the Emirates Stadium, cheerfully eviscerating an Arsenal performance on camera; in a turbaned Birmingham City obsessive leading a party from a Sikh temple to their seats at St Andrew’s; or Muslim women bouncing in the stands at Valley Parade after a Bradford City goal.

These are the Punjabi Rams, AFTV, Blues 4 All and Bangla Bantams: just some of a growing number of BAME supporters’ groups and multicultural fan communities that have sprung up in recent years. Although there is historical precedent for these organisations (Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Punjabi Wolves formed in 1954, and stood pretty much alone for decades), the last five years have seen something of a revolution when it comes to making the faces at football stadiums more reflective of the cities the clubs represent. Here, as the new season begins and the tentative return of spectators is discussed, they talk half-time pakoras and how reimagining the complexion of a match-day crowd could be the key to combating discrimination.

‘I’ll share samosas with the fan on the other side of me as a way of breaking that barrier’

Bangla Bantams, Bradford City FC

For Humayun Islam and other members of the Bangladeshi community in Bradford in the 80s and early 90s, ingrained racism meant supporting their local team was never even up for debate. “You had home fans and away fans coming to the area and it was just verbal abuse, physical abuse and families having milk bottles thrown at their houses,” he says. “So what parents did was tell children that, between 1pm and 5pm on a match day, they had to stay indoors for fear of being attacked.” For a time, football-mad South Asian kids would strain their necks from attic windows to catch a glimpse of the game rather than buy tickets to a ground that was, as Islam says, “a free kick away”.

Although the demographic around Valley Parade has been predominantly Asian for decades, you would never know it from the white faces huddled together on a match day. In 2015, Islam decided to do something about that. Backed by Anwar Uddin – a British-Bangladeshi former player and diversity campaign manager for the Football Supporters’ Association – he founded Bangla Bantams to build a bridge between the club and this wary potential fanbase.

“Historically, what Bradford City would do is see a mosque and just post through some free tickets,” explains Islam, 43, who is chief executive of a charity. “People would look at them, thinking, ‘Why would we go? What’s all this?’ Then the club would say the BAME community is hard to reach. Now, with supporters’ groups such as ours, it’s a two-way process and the model really works.” Part of that model, admirably, is about reaching beyond the expected school groups and men, to women who may never have even considered themselves potential football fans.

“If you don’t ask people, you’ll never know whether they want to go,” Islam says. “We’ve found a lot of mothers who have boys or girls who play football – they get them ready, drop them at sports halls, but they don’t understand why they’re so passionate about it. Taking them to a game, getting them out in the fresh air and out of their routine, really gives them that understanding.”

Though Islam hasn’t got official numbers, he estimates that the Bangla Bantams have brought in “thousands of different South Asian people” to games in the past half decade. Beyond some “inappropriate” chants on the occasions when he has taken newcomers into the noisier Kop end, he says the treatment from other fans has been “really positive”.

Importantly, rather than merely folding compliantly into the broader white working-class makeup of the stadium, they have achieved this by bringing their own flavour to proceedings. “I’ll always have samosas and pakoras with me,” Islam says. “I’ll share that with the fan on the other side of me as a way of breaking that barrier. It’s in our culture, really. Food brings people together.”

In this sense, Islam’s group are subtly putting forward the notion that there is more than one way to be a fan. And also – by providing halal options for terrace novices who may be wary about braving a pie-counter queue – making a historically hostile environment a bit more comfortable for everyone. “Do you know what? We just want to be treated like football fans. We want to go there, represent our city and win,” he says. “There’s no buzz like it.”

‘Our first away game we had matching T-shirts. Fifty brown guys in a block was very striking’

Punjabi Rams, Derby County FC

Members of the Punjabi Rams football supporters' club in the East Stand of Derby County’s Pride Park ground. Pictured clockwise from left - Vik Singh Dosanjh, Balbir Singh Samra, Jaz Basra, Kal Singh Dhindsa with son Raman(8years), Reena Talwar with son Kian(13 years) and Jaya(10)
Members of the Punjabi Rams in the East Stand of Derby County’s Pride Park ground. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

Although they are steeped in the traditions of a working-class, East Midlands Sikh community, Punjabi Rams began life a good 200 miles away, in the fug of a Dublin pub in the summer of 2013. “A few of us had gone to watch Derby play a friendly out there,” says Pav Samra, 39, an IT programme manager and the group’s founder. “We were surprised to meet some Indian guys because we thought we knew all the guys like us who went to Derby.” Over quite a few drinks, and a conversation about whether the Punjabi Wolves model could be emulated, they formed a hazy plan to “get the community together”.

They founded the group in 2014 and wrote a charter, with the important tenet that you don’t have to be Punjabi to join. But, Samra says, what began merely as a way to unite the scattered Indian fans in the stands at Derby County’s Pride Park grounds soon became something bigger. “We ended up on this educational journey that we didn’t expect,” he says. Some of that education came through establishing lines of communication with similar Punjabi groups from supposed rivals, such as Aston Villa, and comparing notes on what they should be demanding from their clubs (Punjabi Rams now have permanent flags in Pride Park, and a seat on the supporters’ charter committee).

They were also discovering how their visibility and the specific cultural inflections of their support (each home match day begins with “a beautiful mixed grill” at one of Derby’s Indian-run Desi pubs; one flag bears the Punjabi battle cry “Chak de phatte”, or “Come on!”) prompted a reaction from white fans. “When there’s a lot of you together, you get a look and you know what it means, even though it’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it,” Samra says. “I remember the first away game when we went as a group, we took a coach and made T-shirts for everybody. Let me tell you: 50 brown guys sitting in a block in matching T-shirts was very striking.”

While plenty of fans sent social media messages to invite them to away-day pubs, some of the attention has been unwanted. “I remember going to Bournemouth away,” Samra says. “We were in the pub and this other Derby lad comes up and goes, ‘Are you part of the Punjabi Rams?’ I go, yeah. He says, ‘Are you guys Muslim?’ I said, no. And he goes, ‘Oh, that’s all right then.’ And he just walked away.” On another occasion Samra had to listen to fellow Derby fans singing a racist song on an away trip to Luton. Both were reminders that toxic attitudes still exist; but also examples, he says, of situations in which groups such as the Punjabi Rams can play a positive role.

“We didn’t know how to react to that, we were shocked,” says Samra of the Bournemouth incident. “But now, through meeting Fans For Diversity [a campaign launched jointly by Kick It Out, football’s main anti-racism group, and the then Football Supporters’ Federation in 2014], Anwar [Uddin] and others, we’ve got to know the best way to react. Now we’d challenge him. ‘What’s the difference? We’re Derby. If I became a Muslim in a month’s time, would you not talk to me then?’ It’s about having those uncomfortable conversations and taking people on [that] journey without forcing it down their throats. We’ve got this forum and if we want to see a positive change, that’s what we’ve got to do.” Their membership currently stands at 350.

Incidents such as the Burnley plane banner have made Samra apprehensive about the atmosphere when fans are allowed back into stadiums. He cites the Black Lives Matter protests; and a June weekend in London when a coalition led by the far-right Democratic Football Lads Alliance set out to protect statues with colonialist links. “I almost feel like there’s going to be an undercurrent of that culture coming back,” Samra says. But he also thinks the momentum from this summer can be harnessed in a positive way. “We’ve got to challenge clubs and say, OK, you’re doing this – but can you do outreach in this area where there are more Indians, or more of a Muslim or black population?”

The hope is that crowds will continue to diversify, and more white fans will experience the moment of revelation Samra often witnesses when the Punjabi Rams are in the pub before a game, putting up flags and fretting about team selection. “Sometimes people will go, ‘Oh, you’re just normal fans,’” he says, chuckling. “And you think, well, what is a normal fan?”

‘Racist fans exist. But if you’ve got black fans around you, you’re going to keep your mouth shut’

AFTV, Arsenal FC

Robbie Lyle (front centre) with other members of Arsenal’s Influencers at the Emirates Stadium (left to right Kelechi (Anyikude), Troopz (back), Robbie Lyle, Pippa (Monique), Ty )
Robbie Lyle (front centre) with other members of Arsenal’s Influencers at the Emirates Stadium. Photograph: Henry Kamara/The Guardian

As far as Robbie Lyle is concerned, the positive impact a more representative mix can have on a football crowd is clear. “The more black fans there are at a game, the less racism there is,” says Lyle, a lifelong Arsenal fan and host of the hugely successful (and, thanks to accusations that it prospers from bad-mouthing the club, decidedly controversial) YouTube channel AFTV. “Don’t get me wrong, there are some of these [racist] fans at Arsenal, they do exist. But if you’ve got black fans around you, you’re going to keep your mouth shut, aren’t you? That’s because it won’t only be a black fan that will turn on you. It will be everyone else.”

Launched in 2012 as Arsenal Fan TV, Lyle’s platform now has 1.2 million subscribers and has long offered visible evidence of this multicultural unity. Although it’s not an explicitly BAME supporters’ organisation – a few of its most prominent amateur pundits are white, for one thing – it has emerged as a diverse rallying point at a club that has always had a large, if disparate, following in the black community. This support, Lyle says, is the legacy both of historic resistance to far-right infiltrators (“The rumour is, they were turned away by the firm at Arsenal”) and a preponderance of talismanic black players such as Ian Wright, the striker turned TV pundit who became the club’s second highest goalscorer of all time. “You just looked at someone like him and you saw yourself,” Lyle says.

For him, the longstanding presence of black fans at Arsenal may help to explain why the community hasn’t formed official fan groups in the same way as, say, Punjabis or Bangladeshis. “There was no need for an African or Caribbean supporters’ group, because every black fan felt comfortable being an Arsenal supporter,” he says. “Arsenal was looked at as one of those clubs you could go to [as a black supporter].”

For Lyle, AFTV serves as a reminder that football isn’t the preserve of people who look or talk a certain way. “It’s someone who might speak with a heavy street accent; a posh guy who works in the City; an Irish fan,” he says. “When you look at it on the TV, you don’t see that, but when you go to the games you do. And now, when you watch AFTV, you see it, too.”

This is not to say the Emirates is a progressive utopia. “With some fans, everything is: ‘You French twat, you Spanish wanker,’” Lyle says. “And you just think, it’s Spanish now – but if I weren’t here it would be something different.”

Lyle was reminded of this recently when Claude Callegari, a white AFTV pundit, had to be dismissed after he referred to Tottenham’s South Korean player Son Heung-min as “DVD” (a racist reference to East Asian men selling pirated films in shops and pubs) during July’s north London derby. “I never thought I’d have to deal with something like that,” Lyle says. “It really brought it home to me because, even days after, I was having people say to me, ‘It’s nothing, Robbie. Why are you taking action? It’s banter.’ That shocked me. It’s a clear case of why education is important as well as a zero tolerance attitude. People need to understand why these things are hurtful.”

Lyle is optimistic about this being a watershed moment: “I do think the majority of fans are behind the Black Lives Matter movement. I look at those people [protecting the statues] and think they are a dying breed.” What’s more, he wonders whether the enforced reset of the pandemic may facilitate some of the sweeping changes for which all these groups have been agitating. “Now the habit of going to games has been broken for some fans, they might say, ‘I don’t need to go every week,’” he says. “That might open up the opportunity for a younger, more diverse crowd. Do clubs go to their community and start offering tickets to get fans back in? I think it’s going to lead to a lot of changes.”

‘The leader of Birmingham’s oldest Sikh temple came to his first game. Now his son’s a mascot’

Blues 4 All, Birmingham City FC

Members of the Blues 4 All fans group of Birmingham City FC at the clubs St. Andrew’s Stadium in Birmingham. (l-r) Colin Nelson, Bik Singh, his dad Mick Singh, Jeevan Bhopal, Mathew Roberts and Aniel Janagal
Blues 4 All members, including secretary Bik Singh (second left), at Birmingham City’s St Andrew’s Stadium. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

As a second-generation Birmingham City supporter with a charismatic, season ticket-holding father, the Blues 4 All secretary Bik Singh felt embraced and accepted during most of his childhood trips to the club’s St Andrew’s stadium. “Coming to football, it was never, ‘Oh, he’s a black guy, you’re Asian, you’re white,’” says Singh, 39, a project manager. “It was just our common church – all of us coming to support our local team.” But as he got to his late teens, Singh began to notice “there were fewer Asians”.

When a white member of the club’s staff raised the same question in 2015, it precipitated a focus group of Asian fans and, ultimately, the founding of the club’s BAME supporters’ group. It’s a positive example, Singh notes, of the powers that be at football clubs being proactive, rather than simply hoping their fanbase will diversify by magic. “They gave us that olive branch,” he says.

After a fairly quiet first year as a group (“We’d go to supporters’ group meetings and none of the others would talk to us,” Singh says), Blues 4 All were put in touch with Fans For Diversity and started to supercharge their activity in 2016. A large part of this, Singh says, was simply providing safety in numbers to BAME fans who had long thought football wasn’t a place for them. “There’s that fear factor,” he says. “So we liaise with the community and say, ‘Listen, come to the game, my group is looking forward to seeing you. We’ll show you around the ground, explain what some of the chants mean and swap our season tickets so we can sit with you.’” He laughs. “We had one gentleman, the president of the oldest Sikh temple in Birmingham, 45 years of age but he’d never been to a football game in his life. He was shocked. He was expecting to see skinheads, people giving him dirty looks. But from then on, his eldest son joined the group and his youngest has been a mascot for two games. You just need people to buy in and get involved.”

There have been occasional, baffling flashes of prejudice from other sections of the Birmingham City fanbase (“Someone posted on our Twitter: ‘Blues 4 All. Except for white people’”). But what Singh and his fellow members are trying to do has generally been embraced, to the point that what started as a movement to attract more Asian supporters has become far broader and now boasts 60 active members. “We’re getting contacted by lots of organisations, lots of faith groups, women’s hostels, refugee charities, martial arts groups and grassroots football teams, mostly from the Asian community, all wanting to come to games,” he says. “We’re not naive. We know that just because somebody has come to one game doesn’t mean they are going to become a fan and buy all the merchandise. Sometimes it could just be that small percentage who feel an affinity to the club, who feel that warmth and closeness when they start talking to another fan about the team.”

This is the sensation – the occasional ecstasy and fleeting agony – he’s out to share with people who have felt excluded for too long. “Football has always been tribal. But really, it’s like having an extended family.”