Football fans will be more than familiar with the routine come November: poppies on shirts, moments silence, manufactured rage against James McClean. Every year since the Derry native came to Britain in 2011, he has received vitriolic abuse for the crime of refusing to wear a poppy. Anyone familiar with the recent history of Northern Ireland would understand if not agree – McClean grew up in a community that were massacred by the very people he is supposed to commemorate every November. James McClean hasn’t helped himself in some cases but this rage, where fans engage in sectarian abuse for three weeks before going back to ignoring him for the rest of the year, is symptomatic of a perverse attitude to Remembrance Day in football.
It is no coincidence that a rise in jingoistic politics has been given credence in football. A sport long associated with fraught expressions of hyper, sometimes toxic, masculinity is a perfect arena for these shows. The past few years has seen an explosion in this area with last year being the high-water mark. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d gone mad with poppy corner flags at Liverpool or army vehicles outside the ground on matchday at Leicester. Closer to home, Rangers have had troops abseiling the stadium and firing cannons to denote their credentials as the quintessential ‘British’ club in Glasgow. The McClean debate served as a precursor of this giant football culture war and it’s clear that he lost – discourse has moved from the right not to wear a poppy, to how obnoxious we can make our displays.
The younger generations would be wrong in thinking that Remembrance Day has always been an important part of the football calendar. It has only been a part of football for the majority of our lives. They were introduced as part of jerseys in 2009 following a Daily Mail campaign that involved haranguing clubs and painting them as ‘unpatriotic’. Perhaps this should have been a sign for what would follow. In recent years, it has become a peculiar part of the culture. Despite its roots, it has been reduced to spitfire commemorative shirts (Hartlepool United) or the giant poppy mascot at Tranmere Rovers that looked incredibly silly. Footage of said mascot (a poppy with clown-like shoes) received more than a million views on the aptly named Mascot Minute Silence account on Twitter. Even the middle-class, forward thinking Arsenal have got involved, because nothing says sombre show of remembrance quite like a cartoon dinosaur laying a wreath before kick-off. The intense competition between football clubs to outdo one another in ‘remembering’ has ironically resulted in a race to the bottom that has increasingly become tasteless and tacky and lost any semblance of commemoration.
These attitudes permeate throughout our society (see MP Anthony Browne’s comically sized poppy) but their role in football should concern us all. We should be asking why this has been allowed to happen and why the Royal British Legion has been given such access to sport. No other charity has such prominence. Perhaps those who took issue with taking the knee before games will be able to explain how that is “virtue signalling” but the poppy isn’t? The obvious answer is that shows of remembrance, much like the poppy itself, have been debased to the point that they are no longer so solemn as they are a tool of glorification and soft propaganda for contemporary British military operations or as WW2 veteran Harry Leslie Smith put it, “The spirit of my generation has been hijacked to sell dubious wars”. It is telling that the very people that are commemorated by such gestures no longer feel comfortable.
Football would be best served by anti-war charities and organisations having a greater role. The people who claim to care the most have unwittingly made a mockery of this time of year and turned a solemn show of respect into a glorification of war. With this, we can expect further bastardisation in the coming weeks, with a Covid twist – I envision Sean Dyche in a poppy facemask.