It is amazing how quickly the atmosphere in football can change. One moment can dramatically alter the entire mood of a fixture, both in the stadium and wherever people are watching at home. A bad tackle, a red card, a piece of skill or a late goal. Football is so temperamental, it doesn’t take a lot to get the emotions going.  

I think everyone was excited for club football to be back this season. It meant the return of fans in stadia, singing and cheering their team on. It’s what we have been missing since the pandemic began. Football isn’t football without the fans.

But then as quickly as it was back, it soured. In just two weeks, that sense of excitement and joy dampened with incidents of discriminatory abuse resurfacing once again. A sobering reminder of the work that we all need to do to make football an inclusive environment for everyone.

When players began kneeling last year in the aftermath of George Floyd, it was a remarkable show of solidarity and strength, using their considerable platforms to drive change. As players continue to kneel again this season, Kick It Out could not be prouder of their efforts to highlight some of the inequalities that still exist in football and wider society.

The reaction to taking the knee has been mainly positive at most grounds this season, but with some notable and disappointing exceptions. Those that have booed have often quoted a misguided connection between the action itself and a political organisation, despite the players reiterating numerous times that they are standing up for equality. Burnley captain Ben Mee, who has been exceptional in his defence of players taking the knee, put it very well when he said, ‘It gets to a point where if you're booing, it doesn't look good on those individuals’.

We would urge fans to respect the player’s choice to kneel, and their reasons for doing it. The relationship between fans and players makes football the game we love, and we strongly encourage people to consider how booing negatively impacts the players and their connection to supporters.

As well as continued online abuse, there have also been various incidents of racist and homophobic abuse being sang at players and fans from the terraces. Crowds chanting has been sorely missed, but some chants are completely inappropriate and offensive.

England has around 50 LGBTQ+ fan groups, a number that is increasing. These groups do great work to make football a safer space for the LGBTQ+ community. However, songs like the one sung by a small group of Liverpool fans at Norwich immediately undo all that work, making any LGBTQ+ fans within earshot, or watching at home, feel isolated and unwelcome by the game they love.

That’s why our continued work with clubs and fan groups is so important. It gives us an opportunity to build their awareness of some of the issues at play and talk through how some of their language and actions are offensive and hurtful, both to players on the pitch and fellow supporters too. But we cannot do this alone. We need leadership from within clubs and the wider game to step up here. This season we have seen excellent instances of senior figures in football lighting the way.

Gareth Southgate’s incredible open letter to England fans set the tone early in the summer. In the face of criticism from a portion of vocal fans, as well as senior politicians, he eloquently delivered an impassioned redrawing of Englishness to reflect the diverse nature of his squad and their reasons for taking the knee.

Elsewhere, while some managers and clubs have shirked or deflected responsibility for fans booing players taking the knee, others have come out emphatically in support of it. Carlisle CEO Nigel Clibbens, should be commended for his statement reinforcing the reasons the players have given for kneeling, and the respect they deserve for doing it.

Similarly, I was delighted to see Liverpool’s quick and decisive action in the wake of those homophobic chants at Carrow Road. To watch Jurgen Klopp discuss with the founder of Liverpool’s LGBT fan group in reasonable depth the issues surrounding the language, and how it impacts fellow fans, was a breath of fresh air.

These are the efforts that build the unity and empathy we need if we are going to make football open to all. This is what real leadership looks like in the battle against racism and discrimination.

Kick It Out’s Take A Stand campaign asks people to make a commitment to tackle discrimination in football. It’s all about creating tangible actions, and for individuals this can often be as small and simple as challenging a friend when they say something inappropriate or reporting any abuse they witness, so that discriminatory behaviour doesn’t go unchallenged.

When it comes to clubs, who wield enormous influence within communities, they must harness their unique position to educate their supporters on the diversity and differences that exists in those communities. Listening to underrepresented groups, marginalised supporters and players, and then taking real action, will help ensure their voices are heard within the club and going forward.

Photo by Emerson Vieira on Unsplash

Football can change quickly. You can be singing and high fiving one minute, and the next minute that same stranger is chanting something homophobic or booing your own players for standing up to racism. Setbacks like these can make it difficult to see how far we have come, but they shine the light on where the game needs to improve.

I am disappointed by some of what I have seen these first couple of weeks back in stadiums. But I am encouraged by the new generation of leaders developing within football, across management, ownership, supporters, and players, crafting new ways to drive change in football. Together with them, Kick It Out will continue to fight for a game free from all forms of discrimination.