Second division British football can be an absolute pressure cooker for players: unreasonable expectations and petty howl after howl litter the drunken crowds, and no player’s celebrity can exempt him from taking a strong verbal lashing.
Nestled in the corner of Queen Park’s Rangers Loftus Road stadium on a balmy Tuesday evening were the dueling fanbases of QPR’s and Derby County’s diehard supporters. Chants would emerge centered around the Derby’s new star man: Wayne Rooney.
Rooney is a national icon; the all-time leading scorer for both Manchester United and England, Rooney applies his trade in England’s second-tier as a player-coach, hoping to gain the requisite experience to one day move up the managerial ranks while still playing the game he loves. You heard the Derby faithful lauding him as such: “Rooney, Rooney, Rooney!” This was the only noticeable chant coming from Derby’s supporters.
You wouldn’t need a hint to know who was chanting: “You’re just a fat granny shagger, you’re just a fat granny shagger.” The legend goes that a 16-year-old Rooney was intimate with a 48-year-old grandmother in a brothel in 2004 — an act to which he admitted. Wayne Rooney, however, is far more famous than the collective entities at Loftus Road — combined.
From every which direction you turned you’d find supporters hailing the former England international with taunts. Behind you would be two old men with canes, rising only when a goal was scored or to pepper ol’ Rooney the rooster. A father would allow his son to passionately wag his finger right in the direction of a man who rolls around on the floor, clutching his knee in tremendous pain. The stewards defending fans from running on the pitch couldn’t help but nod in agreement.
The disrespect for an England legend caught me off guard, but they certainly come as no surprise to John Barnes, a former England captain in his own right. Speaking at the 2020 BASL Conference at the glistening new Tottenham Stadium, he expressed dismay over the abuse young black English players were receiving at stadiums and the racial abuse he was subjected to in his own career.
At Euro 2020 qualifier in Bulgaria last October, UEFA found the home fans guilty of Nazi salutes and monkey chants. After the match was stopped twice, England chose to play on. Barnes understood that abuse is abuse and should never be backed, but stated how we should be more concerned about racist chants domestically than those in Eastern Europe.
What is he calling for? An increase in education among our schoolchildren on racial sensitivity. Barnes cited a 13-year-old fan accused of racially abusing a player in a match last year who was suspended from returning to the ground. He questioned if disciplining pre-teens solves any issue when the real problem is institutional racism.
As the Derby game exhibited, abuse taunts at football matches can be easily compounded by a mob mentality. Calling Wayne Rooney a “granny shagger” is one thing — racial abuse is another.
The most illuminating observation about attending lower-level English football matches was seeing how these chants can easily gain steam. Unfortunately, British fan culture seems to normalize them. What happens when they’re racial, and the 12-year-old boy sitting next to his boisterous father is listening?