Swear on it

The Northern League have their own anti-swearing initiative in place. Owen Amos reports

My first memory of football swearing is, strangely, a good one. It was the mid-1990s, Easington Colliery Welfare, near Sunderland, at home in the Northern League Second Division. The crowd was 60, at best. Easington had a corner. The right-winger jogged over and placed the ball. It was one inch – maximum – outside the quadrant. The referee couldn’t see; the linesman wasn’t bothered. The opposition were too busy shouting “Hold!” and “Tight!” to notice.

The only man who noticed, in fact, was a middle-aged spectator with earphones, notebook and a Thermos. “Referee!” he yelled, desperate for attention. “Referee!” He was leaping now. This was his moment. “That ball is past the line of the corner quadrant!” The winger – shaven-headed, shoulders slouching – turned round, looked the Thermos up and down, and said, quite simply: “For fuck’s sake. Fuck off, man.”

At Northern League grounds – or any ground with fewer than 2,000 fans – swearing is audible. Fine, perhaps, if you’re a broad-minded grown-up. Not so good if you’re a dad introducing your ten-year-olds to the live game. So, five years ago, the Northern League – five divisions below the Football League – took action. With swearing increasing and gates decreasing, they thought cutting the former could increase the latter. It started with informal letters to clubs, reminding them of Law 12, which states a player will be sent off if he “uses offensive or insulting or abusive language and/or gestures”. Mike Amos, Northern League chairman, says: “The refs weren’t enforcing the law, so we wrote to clubs, reminding them of their responsibility, stressing we wanted to be a family league – but it never really worked. There would be a slight improvement, then it would fall back again.”

Far more successful were three posters, introduced soon afterwards. The first, for each club’s refs’ room, read “No offence, gentlemen”; the second, for the dugouts, read “This is a no-swear box”; the third, for the dressing room, read “Swearing offends”. “We initially wanted to go further, and tell the refs ‘This is a league that believes in enforcing the rules of the game’,” Amos says. “But the FA told us in no uncertain terms we weren’t allowed to instruct refs on the laws of the game – which, I think, is fair. So we made the posters. Joe Guest, then FA referees’ manager, didn’t make us take them down – but made it quite clear they thought it was ­inappropriate.”

The posters stayed up and, at the beginning of this year, the Northern League asked the FA permission if they could enforce zero tolerance on swearing. To the league’s surprise, the FA said they could – but in the Second Division only. The news made national headlines; Amos featured on, among others, Sky Sports News and Radio 4’s Today programme. But – after a largely positive response – the FA backtracked two weeks later.

“The FA had positive national press, then back-heeled it completely,” Amos says. “People had thought ‘Good on the Northern League, Good on the FA’. Then they changed their minds.” The Second Division, then, won’t have zero tolerance. Yet this summer, the FA invited the League to a meeting with Sue Law, their head of equality. “They were mainly supportive of our general approach,” Amos says. “She particularly liked the posters.”

So, five years after saying posters were inappropriate, the FA are making the Northern League a pilot area for – you guessed it – posters. They will be shinier and bigger, but have the same message. Wording is being worked on. All of this effort has worked, up to a point. There’s far less swearing than lower north-east leagues and, most agree, less than equivalent leagues elsewhere. And, for six seasons until 2007-08, gates did increase. It’s not perfect. You probably couldn’t stop 22 young lads swearing in church, let alone on a football field. Yet, you feel, the Northern League are right to try.

From WSC 260 October 2008