By David Pendleton
The post industrial north has form when it comes to sprung cultural surprises on an unsuspecting nation: Northern Soul, the angry young men novelists, Madchester. Intermittently, the north spews out game changing movements.
While it’s not quite on that scale yet, it has to be admitted that something is afoot on the terraces, or more accurately the plastic tip up seats, of the north’s football grounds. Rather like the fanzine movement of another generation, it’s a phenomenon at its most virulent in supposedly unfashionable locations. Places far from the ‘exit through the gift shop’ crowds of the Premier League.
The 2010s could well be the era of the British ultras. Granted, it’s a strange brew. The names themselves are illustrative of the perceived contradictions between the cultures of the European ultras and the British terraces: Athleticos (Oldham), Ultras Barrovia (Barrow), Stanley Ultras (Accrington).
The term ultra brings with it connotations of fascism and extreme violence. However, even in southern and eastern Europe, the acknowledged seedbed of ultraism, such associations are the exception rather than the norm. Thankfully, in crossing the Channel, ultraism has firmly left behind its noxious associations.
The roots of British ultraism are actually much closer to home as the movement harks back to the once colourful terraces of 1970s Britain. Look again at footage of the FA Cup finals of that era and witness the sea of scarves and home made flags. Those images were broadcast all over the world and, arguably, planted the seed that led to the emergence of the modern ultra movement in Italy.
Of course, the introduction of all-seater stadiums has been widely blamed for the loss of atmosphere in British grounds. While that is undoubtedly true, the gentrification of the game post-Premier League has also to be factored in.
I was genuinely surprised by the benign atmosphere at Stamford Bridge. A complete contrast to the same ground a couple of decades ago. While not having to keep a weather eye out for the ‘head hunters’ was a very welcome change, the fact that just about the only noise was generated by clap-along music prior to kick-off was indicative of an era that owes more to American wrestling than the Shed End of old. Cue the fold up cardboard signs and selfie-sticks. It’s a matchday experience fit for those with far too much disposable income and far too little self-respect.
Although to ascribe the emergence of a British ultra scene as a reaction to the ills of modern football is tempting, it would be disingenuous. Just as the fanzine movement was more than a one trick pony, British ultraism is drinking at the well of 1970s terrace culture and YouTube clips of European ultras. Stir in a healthy disdain for, what Roy Keane described memorably as, ‘the prawn sandwich brigade’ and you are as close as you are likely to get to an explanation as to why it is Accrington, Barrow and Oldham at the vanguard of the British ultra movement.
It would be cruel to say it is a case of the more unfashionable the better, but, in the north of England at least, it is undoubtedly a factor. Similarly, a club with a notable history of hooliganism appears less likely to be fertile ground for ultraism. The dominant culture is too ingrained with a disdain for ‘scarfers’. Of course, times change, but to quote a City fan from the final game of last season at Tranmere: ‘It was all a bit eighties out there’. Needless to say, Stone Island jumpers were more in evidence than large flags.
So what of the clubs? As with any new phenomenon they are naturally wary. The fanzine movement went through a difficult birth, and although occasional spats between fanzine and club are inevitable, the relationship has by and large settled down into what is, at worst, a healthy mutual distrust. Thus when younger fans appeared armed with drums, flags and Tifo displays the official reaction was occasionally heavy handed.
At Valley Parade tension between the stewards and fans was palpable. However, the relationship has evened out to such an extent that the club now actively encourages displays of support by the fans. This semi-official sanctioning hit new heights during the FA Cup run: #bethedifference (Millwall), a Tifo display (Sunderland) and #scarfparade (Reading). As a result Valley Parade had arguably its best atmosphere in living memory during the Sunderland game. While the much tenser quarter final never really hit the same heights, the visual display as the teams walked out was more reminiscent of the Stadio Olympico than Valley Parade.
During the recent league game with Oldham, their Athleticos began a chant of ‘stand up for the 56’ during the 56th minute. While an overt acknowledgement of the fire still divides opinion at Valley Parade, the show of solidarity was widely appreciated. Contrast that to teenage Reading fans waving lighters towards the away support during the quarter final replay?
Some might mock the ultra movement, and many do, but consider this. Where once young men might have once fought one another in the street to prove their club’s supposed dominance; today colourful flags, incessant drumming and Tifo displays are slowly becoming football’s dominant terrace culture.
Are we witnessing the ultimate victory of the once derided ‘scarfer’? We can but hope.