It hasn’t been a good month for English football fans if you get your news from the more lurid sources. There were several pitch invasions and the headlines from Paris brought back memories of the EURO 2020 final at Wembley.
The usual suspects in the blame game were quick to unleash their volleys long before the facts emerged. Meanwhile, three playoff games were played at the same venue with massive consequences.
This must be written:
The behavior of all six fan bases was impeccable. I haven’t seen anyone drunk.
There were families, children, the elderly and female supporters in large numbers.
The policing was excellent and officers were far more willing to engage in friendly banter than was the case at the EURO.
But it wasn’t just about better policing.
[Police reduced to pick up litter and taking fan snaps as Sunderland and Wycombe do football proud]
Long before they reached Wembley, fans from the rival clubs mingled happily in London.
In central London, northern accents enveloped the city center around Piccadilly and Chinatown on Friday night. Neither theatergoers nor tourists crouched in shop doors.
Supporters of the Terriers, who were backed by their fellow townsfolk to watch the Huddersfield Giants take on Wigan Warriors in the Rugby League final at the London Stadium, turned out in large numbers.
They mingled socially with Forest fans, many of whom also made it a long weekend. They spent Saturday afternoon rooting for Mansfield Town, their Nottinghamshire neighbors, in the second tier play-off.
On Saturday Huddersfield Town fans would have cheered for their side and drunk with Wigan Warriors fans in Tottenham pubs and behaved impeccably as rugby league fans always do.
Forest fans attending the League 2 play-off at Wembley waved to see the Port Vale and Mansfield Town fans set the perfect example.
Both League 2 clubs have made relatively few appearances at Wembley in their recent histories and seemed to enjoy just being present at one of world sport’s most celebrated temples.
With this fresh experience in mind, it was pretty clear on arrival at Wembley that the Forest v Huddersfield game would be on par in terms of fan behavior with both the day before and last weekend’s Sunderland v Wycombe. They were already happily sharing pubs elsewhere in London.
It was also very notable that all three games welcomed a very high number of female fans who have been largely invisible at England’s home games at EURO2020. There might be a lesson to be learned there. Perhaps their presence is an antidote to toxic masculinity.
In the third game, the championship playoff, the mood was initially a bit tense.
With a significant number of fans already in London, the Olympic Way was crowded a little earlier than expected. But that’s where the similarities with the England vs. Italy game ended.
The police looked a little more nervous, presumably well informed by the video of the Forest fans’ invasion after their semi-final against Sheffield United.
However, any fears from the local police began to dissipate as the atmosphere outside the stadium calmed down.
Cynics might want to dismiss the last two finals as lucky Northerners on a big day, or such a ridiculous stereotype. forget that
Sunderland and Wycombe couldn’t be more different as clubs.
One is steeped in history, the other has played more years outside the league than in it. One comes from the industrial North East, the ultimate heartland of English football passion. The other from leafy Buckinghamshire.
Sunderland brought over 50,000 fans. Wycombe ticketing staff worked overtime to sell 22,000 tickets.
Although some had attempted to stir up hostilities online ahead of the game, the reality at Wembley was one of mutual respect.
This was helped by the Wycombe Wanderers property’s generous decision to issue replacement tickets to the opposition. Many of the fans who benefited from the gesture were at Wembley and made a point of passing on their gratitude to Wycombe fans.
Maybe good fan behavior oozes from good club owners?
It must be added that Milton Keynes Dons’ decision making in the semifinals may have influenced Wycmbe’s thinking. A paltry crowd of 13,000 watched this return leg in Milton Keynes as their owners seemed to take pleasure in making participation as difficult as possible for everyone.
Milton Keynes lost money, received a shellac in the media, and was eliminated anyway.
Wycombe chose a more generous and merciful path. They still haven’t won the game, but they’ve made friends – and made money, maybe quite a bit?
The spectator numbers at the finals this year were outstanding:
League One 72,332
League Two 37,303
That’s a total of 189,654.
That total was the best in a decade. Obviously the last few years have been affected by COVID and in 2011 Old Trafford was used for two of the games giving it a lower capacity than Wembley.
But for years like this, this year has been a triumph for the EFL. The total surpassed last year’s highest so far by 2,456 (perhaps making Wycombe’s gesture a bit historic too).
Total attendances at EFL Playoffs 2012-2022
2022 Total = 189,654
2019 total = 187,198
2018 Total = 161,657
2017 total = 153,382
2016 total = 179,422
2015 Total = 172,144
2014 Total = 144,756
2013 Total = 171,107
2012 total = 154,652
Obviously, the relative fanbases of the competing clubs dictate these numbers to a large extent. But it also makes games that go without incident an achievement.
More important than size, however, is the DNA of a true fan base.
The lack of entitlement plays a major role. This is particularly noteworthy this year for Sunderland, whose fans are often accused of not belonging in League One.
There may be an online element that deceives those views, but there was absolutely no evidence of such arrogance at Wembley. Every Mackem treated Wycombe fans with good humor and courtesy. At one point I saw Sunderland fans asking bouncers to let Wycombe fans into a bar intended for Sunderland fans.
It should also be noted that Wycombe Wanderers have a high proportion of female fans in their base. While I can’t say with certainty that this is a pattern, many Sunderland supporters also seemed to have made the journey as a family unit.
Against Italy, a very high proportion of the groups consisted of young men in groups of five and six. Perhaps the FA could consider selling family tickets to England games. That would discriminate against individual males, but for a short time it might reduce the toxicity of their matches. It seems that so many other measures have failed. However, the sole blame for men is still pending.
The England women’s team has a predominantly female fan base and it’s an absolute pleasure to follow them abroad.
There are other factors.
The chaotic toxicity has subsided at club games. Clubs have a large number of foreign players in their line-ups and most of the fan bases are happy to adore them and make them heroes.
However, influences such as Brexit and the increasingly racist tone of government messages on issues such as immigration have contributed to renewed aggression in some parts of England.
Even England manager Gareth Southgate noted this when commenting on the racist overtones of Brexit from her skin, the documentary about the history of black footballers in Britain and the prejudice they endured.
Does anyone think a black player on the staff of loser three Wycombe, Mansfield or Port Vale has suffered the level of insult English players suffered after the final in Italy?
As I wrote in an article about the day, Wembley eyewitness: as the police, UEFA, idiots, media and politicians fail England, there is a lot of blame, including from us in the media. Although every game against Germany has sickening war references in fewer newspapers than 30 years ago, songs about German bombers still appear.
Brexiteer politicians and newspapers are still using Nazi references amid all the EU’s attempts to get the UK to stick to its deals. While nowhere near the economic damage caused by Brexit, it has poisoned the tone of the debate since it was taken over by some irresponsible politicians.
In 1975, Basil Fawlty asked us NOT to mention the war. Being more anti-German than a 40-year-old sitcom character seems like a mark of pride for too many on the political right.
Football and the FA can’t fix that.
Nor will the sports media publish too many articles about how immaculately well-behaved the six fans have been – and more importantly, what an absolute credit they have brought to English football.
That is why we felt this article to be necessary. For anyone who would like to follow England abroad and most of all – for these people below:
Police content themselves with picking up rubbish while Sunderland and Wycombe fans take pride in football
Dominant Vale secures promotion against 10 man Mansfield
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