Bristol football: Playing with tribalism

Despite my Yorkshire pretensions, I was born and bred in Bristol. At the age of seven I was taken to my first football match. Bristol City were playing Lincoln City in the old 4th division. The couple that took me, along with their son, decided to leave at half time thinking, wrongly in my case at least, that we were bored. I was in fact enthralled. Not by the football so much as the crowd. The intermittent surges of noise. Unfortunately my sense of wonder wasn’t obvious by my dreamlike state, which was perceived as disinterest. City probably had about 5000 fans rattling around in their 30 000 stadium that day. Who knows how blown away I would have been by a big game.

I didn’t know back then that I was watching the team I would one day come to despise in the year that marks the worst period of their entire history. After 3 successive relegations City had hit rock bottom and were on the verge of extinction, only saved at the last minute by a consortium who reformed them as Bristol City 1982. This year is now celebrated by Rovers fans as the golden age of City misery, so much so that for many the club are known simply as ‘the 82ers’.

While I was instantly affected by the nature of football as an event what didn’t capture my imagination, and I guess I should say luckily, was Bristol City 1982. At that time as now the teams that interested children in Bristol, at least those without parental persuasion otherwise, were not in Bristol. They were ones based in unknown geography and on telly – and ones who won things. I grew up with the Liverpool generation, kids who supported them then and are karmically stuck with the relatively shite version today. Liverpool were quite a sensible choice of course as they were unarguably the best team at that time. I met a nine year old kid recently and asked him who he supported; “Well I used to support Chelsea but now I support Man City” came the reply. Well why not? As a kid why would you ever pick a team that wasn’t the best. You can’t make yourself harder, more skillful or more popular with much ease, but you can simply pick a team that’s better than all the others and laugh at anyone else less logical.

I was an illogical and odd child. For some reason I chose Nottingham Forest. Not the late 70s league and European cup winning Forest but a mediocre mid-80s Forest with the successes of the late 70s an unrepeatable memory. Why? I had seen a game on TV and I liked the tree style logo. I also had Grandparents in Leeds and thought Nottingham was ‘close’ to where they lived. Relative to Bristol and in the small world of my childhood it was. Regardless it was a bad choice. I remember the pain of seeing them lose 5-0 to Liverpool in 1988 – one of that great sides most memorable performances.

Deciding to support Bristol Rovers came about first and foremost through the desire to actually watch games. I’d grown out of Forest, realising Nottingham was not only a long way from Bristol but, as my geography grew beyond ‘everything upwards is the North’ (a level of perspective many Southeners sadly never discover,) to include the concept of the Midlands, it was not very close to Leeds either. I figured it made no sense to support a team from another city where I couldn’t get to sample the atmosphere and culture which seemed so much a part of what it was to be a fan. This was slightly ironic as, by choosing to support Rovers in 1989, I was choosing a team that did in fact play in another city. Since 1986 Rovers had been forced to leave Bristol and move in with Bath City at Twerton Park. Obviously I did have one other option in Bristol for choice of a local team, but even though Rovers were now 12 miles away, and unlike Bristol City I’d never actually seen them play before, they still felt more local. The old ground at Eastville would have been a 15 minute walk from my home. I also drew on some other factors such as my natural inclination to opt for the underdog, especially one in such dire straights; the fact my older half brother had been a fan, and the fact my grandad, while at Yorkshire Schools Football Asscciation had coached two legendary players from the past. Perhaps the deciding factor was the fact that my dad, before his untimely death when I was still more or less a baby, had written and staged a play set within the club. 

But it doesn’t take long before a deep identity papers over the slightly arbitrary nature of these beginnings. In the hooligansploitation book ‘Bovver’, Rovers fan Chris Brown describes his choice of Rovers over City as stemming from the simple fact the the Rovers ground at Eastville was on his bus route. Not long from this choice he would swinging punches at City fans in mass brawls and tribal battles to ‘take’ pubs and terraces. My choice was slightly less arbitrary but no more meaningful in terms of who of I really am, or of how I should feel about other people.

A liminal space of hatred: 

Last year, aged 38, I sat down to watch the first Bristol Derby for 6 years. As I bellowed, swore and raged at the lap top that streamed the coverage, I found myself in a curious state whereby my behaviour felt so alien to the contemporary me, revived as it was from a former self via the experience of the Bristol derby, I was able to observe it with a weird sense of detachment. Maybe it was the stress of my MA dissertation from which I was taking a break, maybe the lack of company (beyond my slightly shocked German housemate) to harness some kind of sense of social shame. Here I was, dialogue facilitator and advocate, uttering something along the lines of the following:

I hate them, I just fucking hate them so much… Look at them they’re the smuggest fans in the world, they think they are so fucking superior. God I hate them… Fuck you. Fuck you all. Fucking inbred South Bristol wankers”.

You might be shocked, or you might think it as that kind of football bravado that is in many ways just play acting. I know about that because I go in for that a lot too, which is why I had to acknowledge the passion and genuine anger with which those words were being said, at least from the part of me that I simultaneously no longer recognised. 

Musing on the meaning of sport, Simon Barnes suggests that all sport is a form of play, multiple variables on the playing out of violence without actually engaging in it. A sophisticated human version of lion cubs play fighting as preparation for the day when they will have to really fight. A controlled substitute for genuine conflict. It is for this reason Barnes has little time for boxing, which he sees as crossing the line between play and genuine violence. In a similar way, in certain cases partisan fandom can be seen as a form of play, but in this case a play of tribalism, without the accompanying hate induced violent conflict. If, like me and many others, you are acutely aware of the fallacy and destructive nature of tribal animosity, from racism to nationalism through ethnic and gang warfare, you won’t want to engage socially or politically with such identities. You might, on the other hand, want to pretend in order to enjoy the simple mindless pleasure of animosity and banter – without ever believing, at least not deep down, that it really matters. Any sporting match is improved by partisan support, even if we choose sides on the spot we can fall into instant oneupmanship – a reason commentators and pundits so often use the slightly irritating term “bragging rights”.

But football support as play is not so clear cut as the game itself. The Old Firm in Glasgow like many other examples across the world is based on real ethnic conflict and divides. Less obvious is the controversy surrounding the unacceptable or otherwise adoption of the term ‘Yids’ and ‘Yid Army’ by Spurs fans. In either case where a fanbase adopt an ethnic identity, even if in self defence, it asks questions of our right of reply. I want to ‘play’ by abusing your identity as a fan, but here the anti semite’s racism is given a space in which it feels legitimised and the rest of us are left mute. It is for this reason I feel international football, where real nationalisms and hatreds can be so easily invoked, is best served via pure celebration and not focussing at all on the other, or superiority over them – something you can experience following a patriotic Scotland but not a nationalistic England. Yet even my outbursts against the ethnic City fan, probably a throw back to an earlier me that believed more fully in some weird reality to the rivalry, highlighted how blurred this line can become at a club level, even for a peacenik like me.

It might be easy to look at hooliganism, the actual playing out of violence on the back of such tribal rhetoric, as the cross over between play and reality, but it’s not quite that simple. A hooligan may be more interested in an excuse for a fight than any genuine attachment to the dividing lines that make that fight possible. Equally a non-violent fan may  be immersed in his or her belief in the deep meaning of partisan divisions, along with accompanying hatred, without any interest in getting, or courage to get, involved in a brawl.   

To some small extent I have to accept that could once describe me. When I first started making the long trip to Bath every other Saturday I began to pick up the culture of the club, the songs and chants, particularly the anti-City ones that formed about half the repertoire. My mum always hated me singing them because she hated the tribalism which seemed all too real. One such song includes the line “We hate (insert current City Manager) and all of the Reds. The only good City fan is one that’s dead”. Of course I haven’t ever actually felt that I would prefer all City fans to be dead than alive. This chant calling for literal fan-base-icide isn’t one I want realised. Of course I was just playing. But to what extent? Fairly early on I was alerted to the fact that for some the banter was beyond play and had passed into the realm of a frightening reality. This probably first struck me at one of those hot early or late summer games when the beer guts come out to celebrate and the terraces are awash with pale bloated flesh. It’s then that I noticed the tattoos. When someone has a robin (City’s mascot is a robin and their nickname is the Robins) impaled with a nail through its head permanently inked onto their skin – you realise they are not just playing with hate, they really do hate.

Post Hornby, Premier League etc football has become increasingly middle class, and working class terrace culture fetishised and ultimately tamely adopted by a new breed of fan. Certainly in the case of the bigger London clubs. This adoption is in some ways another layer of play, a play on people playing, only talking about it more and endlessly. Or chanting less in the grounds but asserting ‘bragging rights‘ via internet forums and comment threads. Often the bourgeois adoption of football tribalism seems to magnify its childishness. 

Bristol and the unity of rivalry:

This is not just about class, but a broader culture, and getting to grips with this also helps me get to grips with Bristol, that is to say Bristol as a footballing City. Bristol is one of the smaller cities to have two teams, yet undoubtably the worst of all two team cities. A city not significantly larger, Liverpool, contrasts in almost every way. Putting aside the Liverpudlian – Mancunian divide, Liverpool itself at least has an identity as a two team City. It has rivalry – but it celebrates that rivalry. It plays with it. Bristol, with its failing teams and with fan bases broadly and increasingly divided by geography since the 60s, before which fans watched both teams and mixed during derbies, has no such identity. It has a rivalry, but one which doesn’t celebrate the fact it is a City able to hold two teams, but rather forever wishing it only had one.  A two team City, in a similar way perhaps to Edinburgh, with an identity crises. City fans resent Rovers existing, seeing them as the millstone which holds them back from being the force they could and should (not might) be. Rovers on the other hand resent City as the bigger club and have an inferiority complex. At times the nightmare vision of City’s success eclipses the dream of a successful Rovers, coming as it does with the threat of pushing Rovers out of the town not big enough for the both of us. This is a rivalry which wishes it wasn’t there. Rovers fans may not actually wish City fans dead, but as with some City fans the other way, some might not have a problem with the death of the club. Why else celebrate the moment they almost did in 1982? 

No wonder then that the Bristol derby is such an unpleasant affair. There is an animosity without celebration of that animosity, without any ability to play with it. It does little celebrating, it only shouts its discontent at the other side. Very few look forward to the derby as other cities might. But to celebrate a rivalry you have to be able to celebrate the rival. Bristol is a great City and big enough and better for the both of us.

As society shifts, fan bases change, and the boundaries of acceptable behaviour are altered, and as we chuckle over our ‘bragging rights‘ while chastising football violence, we should try to better understand the blurred lines and confusions in which these liminal spaces operate. The potential of Bristol to be a unified and cohesive city is, in relative terms, a straightforward one. Yet the ability to create a sense of shared identity of and beyond rival differences is a tall order. But a failure to do so can deny a basic reality, that without the other we lose part of the self. Unlike the ugly emptiness of nationalisms based on comparatives (Britishness has for so long been about what, or who we are not, rather that what we are), surely the liberated playground of football support has the potential to love and embrace the bigger picture?

Sid Lowe makes it clear in his fantastic book “Fear and Loathing in La Liga”, that Barcelona and Real Madrid have built their identities on each other and on their rivalry. This has occurred within the realm of football but obviously parallels and encompasses the wider political and cultural context. On the other hand Bristol’s North of the river/ South of the river military industrial complex really doesn’t justify our inability to come out and admit our essential unity. Sadly we seem further away from doing that than most.    

As City look set to move up the leagues and Rovers settle in to what might be many a year in the non-league, perhaps City fans will finally get their wish of a one team City. But if they ever make the Premier League, however much they may enjoy it, without Rovers alongside Bristol won’t be able to claim its own derby. Something both City and Rovers alike can use as ‘bragging rights’ over so many other teams.

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