Ask any outsider about their first impressions of Millwall or The Den – and I’d offer very good odds that they’d mention the torrent of swearing that we regard as normal. So it was for me back in ’72 when I first made my naïve 11 year-old’s way to Cold Blow Lane. Never had I heard such a volume of what the dictionaries described as ‘Anglo-Saxon’ language. Fuck, shit, piss, cunt – all bodily functions and sexual acts covered. And that was just against the Millwall players. The opposition got it a lot worse – mostly.
Contrast that with a trip I took to watch Charlton play Birmingham when they were in the Premier League a few years ago. A good mate, who is a season-ticket holder there along with his son, couldn’t go. And asked if I’d take his boy. So the kid didn’t miss his match. I’m not sure what I expected, but the quietness of the crowd was tailor-made for the industrial level insults and abuse to which I’ve come to regard as a normal part of the football experience.
But no. Nothing. No swearing at all at The Valley it seemed. In fact one poor sod did call a Brum player a cunt and got slung out for his pleasure. ‘Spoiling the family atmosphere’ one lemon behind me said as the silence of The Valley returned. As much as the debate about overzealous stewarding at Millwall occasionally rages on the internet message boards, I really think that we don’t appreciate how much is tolerated at The Den sometimes – and I know that isn’t a fashionable opinion to hold.
The whole subject of abuse in the game has of course held centre stage over the summer of 2014. The John Terry case brought to light some rather unflattering aspects of the modern game, which I am sure the FA would have preferred stayed out of the limelight. Terry was in court because, by his own admission, he had used the words “fuck off, fuck off … fucking black cunt, fucking nobhead” during a row with QPR’s Anton Ferdinand.
Terry’s defence was that he actually said “fuck off, fuck off … fucking black cunt? Fucking nobhead,” and that was what the court agreed did not constitute racial abuse. Instead it favoured his ‘sarcastic exclamation in shocked response to being accused of racism’ defence. No doubt you’ll have your own opinions as to the rights and wrongs of the can of worms that constitutes racial abuse legislation – and CBL Magazine isn’t the place to delve into that. But what was interesting in the whole Ferdinand / Terry exchange of views was the acceptance of abuse within football as part of the ‘banter’ that the sport seems to hold so dear.
Consider if you will that, when Anton Ferdinand took the witness box and described how he’d reminded Terry that – before calling another player “a cunt” – he should take a long, hard look at himself. He meant of course Terry’s alleged affair with Vanessa Perroncel, the former partner of his ex-Chelsea team-mate Wayne Bridge, “How can you call me a cunt?” Ferdinand had shouted at Terry. “You shagged your team-mate’s missus, you’re the cunt.” Indeed so, though one might venture that Ms Perroncel also had a hand (and probably other body parts) in it too.
The truth of course is that it is not particularly shocking that footballers use these kinds of language and sexual insults. Gawd knows that The Den must be high up in the Premier League of Insults – if not the UEFA Champions League if they were to run such a version – so let’s not get all holier-than-thou. It’s a man’s game and all that. But hearing the various exchanges related in court brought home just how low rent and juvenile much of this stuff is. It really is the school playground, on £120k a week wages. The one thing Terry and Ferdinand did agree on was that being called “a cunt” was almost mandatory in football. And that if referees applied the rule that abusive language merited a red card, the average game would last “no longer than 10 minutes”. Which most certainly would not represent value for money at Chelsea’s prices – nor Millwall’s for that matter.
So is the culture of abusive language so deeply ingrained in football that it can never be eradicated? Do we even want to? After all as much as some might tut-tut over Terry’s description of 30,000 Liverpool fans singing about his Mum ‘liking Scouse cock’ – and they didn’t mean her predilection for male chicken organically reared and humanely slaughtered on Merseyside for her Sunday lunch – well the truth is that this is also part and parcel of the tribal love and hate spectacle of the sport. Something that we know all about at The Den.
Take it away and you have the bland atmosphere of the Team GB Olympic matches. Yes of course in rugby you get sin-binned or sent off if you so much say boo to the ref. In cricket the umpires can penalise a side five runs for unsportsmanlike conduct and in American baseball I recently watched a batsman be ejected from the game for querying an umpire’s call at the plate in rather too personal terms. Something involving the man’s wife, mother or sister apparently – and possibly the family pet. But then, none of those sports truly carry the emotional baggage of football – nor its ability to stand as a metaphor for tribal conflict. Maybe as the game for gentlemen played by thugs, the sport provides an emotional outlet for a large slice of society.
Swearing has a rich history and is a basic part of the English language. Indeed Keele University researchers have found that swearing actually relieves the effects of physical pain. This would explain perhaps why Millwall supporters are so prone to bad language. As one put it “I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear”. Well we often hurt ourselves when we come to the Lions – as much of last season demonstrates. However, the overuse of swear words tends to diminish this effect the Keele team has found. So by all means eff and blind at the game today, but don’t overdo it. And if a steward comes by to sling you out, try out the Terry defence by saying that you weren’t calling anyone a cunt, but were describing what you overheard someone else say to a third party. Sarcastic exclamation being an intrinsic part of the Millwall experience. And if that doesn’t work, just call him a cunt as you’re getting thrown out anyway and might as well make it worthwhile.
Archbishop’s Column from CBL 1 – August 2014