The Hardest Lesson of All

Last updated : 19 December 2002 By Richard Olroyd

Two weeks ago I was sat here writing about a great night for our club when we played Manchester United; about the quality of our football, about the passion and the pride that was vociferously expressed on the terraces, about what a good advert we gave for ourselves on national TV and radio.

That all seems harshly irrelevant now.

Instead of that ebullient pride, a sense of sombre embarrassment has descended over Burnley Football Club. Football is an all consuming, passionate spectacle which the vast majority of us love to get involved with, but it is, above all else, a sport.

It is not an excuse for a fight, or a matter over which blood should be shed. It should lead to banter and a bit of fun between rival supporters, and it should be an event at which we can shout and sing and release many of the frustrations and energies which cannot be expressed in day to day life. But that is done vocally, not with fists or feet, bottles or weapons.

I’m nineteen. I’m a student with a few ambitions and a life I’m enjoying. I’m not entirely sure what I will be doing in ten or twenty years time, but that doesn’t matter. I still have an unshakeable – some would say naive – optimism or certainty that I will land on my feet, and besides which, there’s too much happening at the present for me to become particularly concerned with the future.

I don’t know for sure, but I imagine Nathan Shaw was in a similar position. Young, hopeful and in Burnley simply to watch a game of football. That that should prove to be his fatal mistake represents a tragic waste of an unfulfilled life.

The mood of the overwhelming majority of Burnley fans was clear on Saturday, when Turf Moor seemed to be in a collective state of shock that appeared to have transmitted itself onto the pitch. The minute’s silence was almost impeccably observed. Afterwards, the ground was strangely subdued even before the first Rotherham goal went in.

But some people, it seems, will never learn. On this Saturday of all Saturdays, with the murder of a young man still palpably fresh in the memory of so many, it started all over again, and this time it was inside the ground.

Early in the second half a small chorus began chanting at the Rotherham supporters, a mindless yet essentially harmless chant about Yorkshiremen, the like of which is found at any ground every week. A bloke down in front, a Burnley fan, took exception, and stood up and said so. He was from Yorkshire, and he didn’t like the chant. So inevitably it came back, louder and harder than before. The bloke stood up again. Tempers flared as one of the chorus stood up to argue with him. Arrangements were made to ‘take it outside after’. Then, after Rotherham went 4-0 up, as the protestor got up and appeared to leave, that member of the chorus whistled his mate and they went after him, their intention obvious.

The fact that, in the end, the fan never left the ground and the fight never materialised is irrelevant. My sister is sixteen, and she was made uncomfortable by what she saw. More importantly, we were surrounded by children of no more than primary school age, who, at best, would have been a touch scared by what they saw and heard. At worst, it is very likely that they will have gained the impression that meaningless disputes can be settled with violence.

There is enough bad press surrounding our club at the moment without adding to it by starting fights between ourselves or setting the wrong example to the next generation of clarets. If the common decency of the matter doesn’t make a difference, look at it from a crudely materialistic viewpoint for a second. Just at the moment, Burnley Football Club do not represent a good investment for businesses looking to attach their name to a football club because a few mindless idiots have dragged us through the mud. Now, more than ever before, the need for restraint is paramount.

By the way, if anyone at Burnley Football Club wishes to act upon those events (which were clearly seen by stewards), then they can contact me through Clarets Mad. I sincerely hope they do.

It would be nice to think that some good would come of the death of Nathan Shaw. Not enough to provide even a crumb of comfort to his parents, friends or family; but something nevertheless. Maybe it will focus attention more forcefully than ever before on stamping out the cancer of malice which has for years attached itself to football. Some would say that that is impossible, but, like I say, I’m young and optimistic. I happen to think that if everyone is a little more forceful in making troublemakers unwelcome, and a little bit less hesitant in reporting troublemakers to police and stewards, we can make a difference. I think that in the past we might have been a touch complacent, a little to quick too pass the buck and make it somebody else’s responsibility.

Certainly, since the attack, something good can be seen as a result of the tragedy. Look on the messageboards dotted around the internet. There, you’ll find supporters of every club offering condolences to those close to the boy, and you’ll also find a philosophical approach which acknowledges that the vast majority of Burnley fans could not be more opposed to what happened on that fateful day. Both those messages show the nature of the people who make up the vast majority of football fans: honest, decent people who enjoy the game for the right reasons, and who play no role in the moronic behaviour that can be misassociated with it.

Nevertheless, the reputation of Burnley Football Club and its supporters has been tarnished. And the road to restoring it will be long and difficult.

Happy Christmas.