Matt Maher: Gareth Southgate hits the mark with his take on society

Gareth Southgate
Gareth Southgate

Call-ups for Fikayo Tomori and Jarrod Bowen were discussed, as was the omission of Villa defender Tyrone Mings as Southgate met the media on Tuesday for the first time this summer ahead of next month’s Nations League games.

But for the most part, the Three Lions boss has had to grapple with the alarming rise in fan disruption seen in English football in recent weeks. Typically, Southgate spoke eloquently and thoughtfully on the issue, pointing out — just as he has previously done when speaking about racism — that what happens in sport is often a reflection of society at large.

“We are in a difficult moment as a country,” he said. “I recognize that there are financial difficulties for many people in our society and perhaps that plays a role and we have been in a pandemic for a long time with tremendous restrictions.

“I think we’re going to have tougher times because of the economy and the reality of the situation we’re in. But we have to look at what we’re doing in terms of parenting, really in terms of everything. How do we want to be perceived as a country? That is manifesting itself in football and it doesn’t look good.”

“Football has a responsibility and we have to play our part. But football reflects society.”

Regardless of Southgate’s strengths and weaknesses as a football coach, his ability to get to the heart of the biggest problems has always been impressive. English football really couldn’t ask for a better spokesperson for its most prominent role.

On the other hand, if a man whose main job is to win football matches is able to speak on such issues with greater clarity than many politicians, it can go some way to explaining why society is in its place .

Sport doesn’t exist in a bubble. It has been impossible not to watch some of the recent events at Westminster and ponder whether the sense of entitlement and lack of accountability observed there has not in some way trickled down to the do-as-I-damned-well-please- Pitch invasions at Nottingham Forest, Everton and elsewhere are witnessed to have contributed to recruitment.

Journalists need to be careful when writing about fan behavior. There aren’t too many occasions when it doesn’t seem appropriate for those who don’t pay to go to games to tell those who do how to feel or react to their team’s fortunes. Pitch invasions have long been a part of football and have helped create some of the sport’s most popular imagery.

The mood, however, was markedly different from that of recent weeks, with a menacing undertone that turned violent with the assaults on Billy Sharp, Jordan Bowery and Robin Olsen.

The majority of those who run onto the field mean no harm. But the senseless minority remains significant. For more and more, the act seems driven less by spontaneous joy than by a calculated desire to be part of the spectacle and show off on social media. The best evidence of this was Crystal Palace boss Patrick Vieria, who had a camera phone shoved in his face while being taunted as he walked across the pitch at Goodison Park.

Trespassing on the playing surface has been a criminal offense since 1991, but enforcing the law when thousands are doing it at once has never been practical. Inevitably over the past week there have been calls for more scrutiny and tougher policing, but the reality is mass invasions are hard to stop.

What is likely, should the current trend continue, is harsher penalties, both for fans and clubs. A return to fences seems like the last resort, but reduced capacities are more than possible. In a statement this week, the Football Supporters’ Association bluntly laid out the consequences for fans affected by a Football Banning Order (FBO).

It explained: “When individual supporters are accused of assaulting the pitch, we often pick up the pieces and explain to young fans that it’s against the law and hurts your employment and educational opportunities. There’s no nice spin we can put on it.”

According to the law of averages, when large crowds gather, there are always jerks who want to spoil the fun.

As Southgate noted, the key is to educate those at risk of being influenced by the mindless minority, and in that regard we all have a role to play. It’s the little things that matter.

“Why do people throw out their rubbish when they drive out of a petrol station?” The England coach made a point. Such an example might seem worlds apart from the scenes that sparked the conversation, but basically it’s the same. In the end, it’s all a matter of respect. Right now too many don’t have enough of it.

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