Almost 20 years ago I made my first pilgrimage to St James’ Park. It was the start of the 1999 Premier League season, Alan Shearer was making his 100th appearance for Newcastle United and after a couple of near misses this was, surely, the start of something special.
Seventy-five minutes in and those dreams had been shattered; Shearer had been sent off for the first time in his career, Aston Villa were 1-0 up and I was now a bad omen, certain to be banished from attendance for evermore.
“Get behind the team,” my uncle encouraged, nervously clutching for some, or any, guidance that might quell the barrage of tears. “Give them a cheer.”
There is nothing like feeling that you’re part of something. With every cheer, chant and taunt, I was there, taking collective action for the thing I loved. The likelihood of inducing a change in the on-field circumstances was unlikely. And yet, tears suppressed, the experience was one I’d never forget. It cemented a lifelong obsession. For my uncle, it prompted an uncomfortable afternoon.
“What does w**ker mean,” I had turned to him, blissfully ignorant. “Someone who, umm –” he was clutching again. “Who drinks too much beer.” Problem solved, until his nine-year old niece promptly joined those on the terraces, joyfully chanting that the referee was, as I assumed, someone who drinks too much beer.
This was an incident of its age. Indulging in expressions of passion, instinct and, ultimately, love, is an immensely satisfying experience.
Luckily we are evolving in the way that we express these feelings. It was nevertheless pent-up passion, with a good dose of frustration, which arguably emanated from Shannon Gabriel’s mouth on the final day of the last Test against England earlier this week.
Yet just as Joe Root turned, spontaneously, and without hesitation, to condemn Gabriel’s alleged homophobic slur, the evolution is a work in progress. On the one hand this offers cause for celebration of the progress in LGBTQ attitudes in the UK. On the other, it reminds us that across the West Indies, homosexuality remains illegal in many of its constituent nations.
Other recent incidents in global cricket have also shown the challenges of a game that crosses continents; cultural differences might not be an excuse but they can serve as part of the reason why. Far from Gabriel living to “regret” his sentiments as Root suggested he might, here is hoping that this might serve as another step towards progress, for Gabriel and everyone else.
Soon, those expressions of passion will be something entirely different.
In our reaction, as spectators, fans and members of this changing culture, it is also therefore an opportunity to celebrate a sport that, on the whole, is becoming more tolerant, more open to all. How we react to these isolated incidents will determine the spirit in which we participate in the future.
Creative crowd interaction is not a bad way to go. It gets the best out of fans, requires collective effort and with that much thought required to manufacture some of the more inspired tropes, rarely end up being all that sinister.
The impact of a crowd on its team’s performance is hotly debated. It certainly adds to the sporting spectacle, though.
That was certainly the case as India’s Bharat Army took to the Sydney Cricket Ground stands to chant, to the tune of a popular country anthem that: “Rishabh Pant will hit you for a six, he will babysit your kids.” India’s young wicketkeeper, who earlier in the match had been taunted by Australian captain Tim Paine to look after his children, responded in kind.
Those players that react well to jibing have tended to persevere. Stuart Broad’s response to the Brisbane Courier Mail’s refusal to name him, branding him instead as a “fraud”, in the lead-up to the 2013-14 Ashes series, have seen Broad return series-deciding spells of bowling since. Mitchell Johnson, similarly derided by a customised Barmy Army taunt of his wayward bowling in 2011, bounced back with 37 Ashes wickets against England two years later.
The exceptions make the rule, of course; England’s Ronnie Irani, having delighted the crowd with an acrobatic stretching routine which the mass of Australian fans behind him gleefully imitated back in 2002, proceeded to concede 29 runs from five overs (in those days, a lot) and was run out for a duck. Perhaps if Irani had had two more years on the international circuit he too would have triumphed; he was dropped from England’s ODI team two months later and injury prevented any chance of a subsequent recall.
Nothing in life should be so important that it cannot be made fun of, sport certainly not. Survival through even the harshest of circumstances throughout our history has often gone alongside a heavy dose of black humour.
Laughing in the face of adversity is often the only antidote left and in sport it can be an important barrier between good-natured competition and something much more sinister.
Some might suggest it can lead to that inevitable “crossing of the line”; instead I’d argue it buffers it. Much rather we be singing: “This’ll be the itch in Cam’s fly,” to the tune of American Pie than a repeat of the action itself. Taking an issue and deriving humour from it, making it memorable, contriving an imaginative chant or song – that is how to foster friendly rivalry in sport and deter any actual misdoing.
I hope that when the Australians arrive on English soil this summer, they are greeted with some of the best Barmy Army chants this boisterous set of fans have to offer.
I hope too that, on hearing what is thrown at them, the Australians duly react – affably off the field, and thumpingly competitively on it.