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Cod Almighty | Article

by Bill Meek

18 October 2023

Thirty three years ago when being a football fan was a much more dangerous pastime than it is now, I completely missed a Town promotion for the only time in my life because I was living abroad. I was one of those often-maligned people, an immigrant doing agricultural work that (presumably) locals don't want to do; as it happens, in New Zealand. The locals treated me with nothing but kindness, for which I'll always be grateful.

I'll also never forget, surrounded by tree ferns and fruiting tangerine bushes, reading in the Auckland Herald the actual names of the Town fans arrested after disorder in the last game at Chesterfield, although what interest that can have been to residents of that most beautiful and distant part of the globe, I haven't a clue. It was of interest to me, needless to say.

Possums used to wake me up in the night, walking on the roof of the unheated Portakabin which I shared with Gary and Martin, fans of Stoke and Orient respectively, and a small, tame wild bird called a fantail which we could never be arsed to shoo out. I lived in the next cabin to three Brighton fans, and on the other side, Jamie, a Millwall fan of anti-fascist persuasion, and one of the naturally funniest people I have ever met. Every weekend me and Jamie would walk three miles together to the local village, bring back the paper with the English football results in it to dispense amongst the other UK workers, and go halves on a lotto ticket.

He once told me something extraordinary that I've never forgotten - that he would rather support a team like Millwall, whose fanbase included both fascists and anti-fascists - on account that they actually had anti-fascists - than a team like Grimsby, whose latent prejudices, while much milder on average, went mostly unchallenged. Before you take the hump at that, remember it was 1990 and there was probably a germ of truth in it.

Now the world has changed and the rise of social media has enabled anybody to sling abuse at anybody else from the safety of anonymity. Before this technological advance, we were in the old Grimsby role – a world with a supposed commitment to equality and tolerance, to which one suspects many were not actually committed. Nowadays we are the old Millwall – riven by binary ideological differences with everything in the open, which has turned ordinary people into bitter, antagonistic tribes who only listen to their own kind and hate each other's guts. This, in the Jamie scenario, may actually be the healthier state, because it forces the point, makes people inform themselves, and in turn sets the scene for the changes for the better which the future should, via a few ups and downs, always bring. It doesn't always feel like that though, does it.

In 33 years, society, and Millwall, have moved on. The racist thuggery of the Old Den is, notwithstanding the odd nostalgic adventure, a thing of the past, replaced by a prominent role in the 'Kick It Out' campaign. A degree of vigilance is still required and Millwall have an unofficial fans' forum you need a strong stomach to read. But things have undoubtedly improved. In 2023, even here in supposedly complacent, provincial Grimsby, we no longer tolerate open racism although, like everywhere, it still stains the inner workings of the machine.

So what's this all got to do with anything? Well – what, I ask you, is the societal purpose of football in the first place? I'll tell you – it's to act as a set-piece which draws innate and intractable tribalism out into a demarcated space and time and away from society, so that we can get it out of our systems, then go back to work on Monday and return to treating someone from Yorkshire with immaculate respect.

These days, what with Wrexham fans paying for Grimsby's kids to go to the play-off final, Rochdale playing 'Best of GTFC' in their fanzone, Tony Butcher writing for Stockport's fanzine, Jason and Andrew paying the wages of the Scunny ticket office and the Pontoon clapping away fans who've just called our town a shithole and are about to celebrate a last-minute equaliser, we've turned that round and the great family of football is starting to look like an island of tolerance and inclusion in a world which has turned into a poisonous, zero-sum nightmare. To be frank, I liked it much more the other way round, and I'm absolutely sure it was both better and safer for the world. If someone in Milton Keynes was starving I'd have no hesitation in sharing my food with them, but just don’t ask me to be nice about their team.

Just to finish my story, eventually I left the motor camp, leaving Jamie to walk to the village on his own on a Saturday afternoon, pick up the paper and pay for his lotto ticket himself. Three weeks later, this happened: 

NZ Herald