By Simon Moyse

When compared with styles in the rest of the world, English soccer culture is largely characterized by what it doesn’t have, more than what it does have. At its core it is a very unstructured style, driven less by organization and authority, and more by emotion and spontaneity. Generally speaking, it is more in tune with what is happening on the field than other supporter styles globally. At its best, that can make it a huge part of the emotional rollercoaster that is a great soccer game. At its worst, it can be as dreary as a 0-0 draw at Plymouth on a wet Tuesday night.

English supporter culture is very, very different to the rest of the world. Much is written on why this has come to be, and I won’t drain the topic here, but at its core, I think it’s basically because Britain is an island. As a nation, the British have always had this slightly insular nature. We try to ignore the French and the Germans for the most part, and those 20 miles of water between Dover and Calais gives us the perfect excuse to do so. We entered the EU grudgingly, years after all the other major European nations (when it became apparent that it would be economic insanity not to), but even then, we picked and chose which parts we agreed to. None of those funny Euros for us, thank you very much! The same mentality really applies to soccer. We invented the game, we were really the first ones to have a supporter culture, and nobody is going to convince us that we aren’t absolutely the best at it.

 As a result, English soccer culture has really remained broadly unchanged since its inception, and other approaches have been largely ignored. Up until relatively recently (I’m talking maybe the last 20 years or so), there really wasn’t a lot of foreign soccer shown on English TV. For the most part, people weren’t interested. There was this general distrust of mainland European football in general, particularly following the ban of English clubs from UEFA club competitions following the Heysel disaster of 1985, which many felt was a scheme by the top European nations to end the dominance of English clubs in European competition. This attitude generally extended to their supporter culture. The term ‘ultra’ has long been used interchangeably with ‘vicious foreign hooligan’ by the English media, and it is only in recent years that a greater understanding has arisen of what ultras groups stand for. The ultra mentality is starting to make some headway in the English game, often in the most unlikely places. The fans of South London club Crystal Palace have put together a number of quite nice tifo displays over the last few years – nothing like the size of what we do here in Seattle, but certainly on a par with what they do in smaller stadiums like Colorado. Similarly, I nearly fell off my chair when I read stories a few years back of a capo, complete with megaphone, at minnows York City. North of the border in Scotland, of course, Celtic’s Green Brigade have absolutely embraced ultras culture. Still, in general terms, the English culture remains as it has always been, and this is unlikely to change any time soon.

Here, I shall examine various aspects of English supporter culture in the context of the experience that you are used to here in Seattle. 


Independent supporters groups

Quite simply, groups like the ECS basically do not exist in England. The vast majority of the supporters clubs that do exist are run by the clubs themselves, and while those groups do serve some of the functions that ECS members will be familiar with, their scope is very limited. I will cite the Ipswich Town supporters group as an example. The group was started by the club as a means of communication with the fans. It is split into a number of geographical branches for fans of the club around the country, not dissimilar to the ECS subgroup structure. My family were involved in the London branch of the group, and we would send a monthly newsletter to the members of the group (around 200) which would co-ordinate travel (usually by train), and also run soccer and darts teams. (The ECS needs a darts team, just for the record. Beer and sharp objects are just a marriage made in Heaven). The Chairman of the group was always an employee of Ipswich Town Football Club (are you cringing yet?). My father edited the newsletter for a number of years, and we often speculated as to what would happen if he was too critical of the club; he always toed the line, so we never really found out. In any case, I’m sure you’re getting a picture of how these groups work – nothing too heavy, just a way to stay in touch with the club and organize travel to away games.

 As far as independent organization goes, there is very little. There was a popular fanzine scene in the late 80s, much of which emerged out of the major issues that supporters were experiencing with the authorities around that time. This fanzine scene has pretty much died out now, but there were a number of ISAs (independent supporters associations) that grew out of that. They were, however, generally there to provide a voice in negotiations with the clubs on supporters’ issues. They do not exist to organize the fans, make tifo, or do anything else to co-ordinate the supporting experience.


March to the match

March to the match doesn’t happen either, and the reason is simple: beer. For many years alcohol was banned from most English stadia due to the hooligan problems, so there was really no way the average fan was going to leave the pub one second earlier than he needed to in order to get to the game on time. So gathering for a march is just out of the question. Of course, this being England, there are many pub options to be had. Historically, most English stadiums are located close to the center of the town that they represent, and where there is an English town, there are pubs, and plenty of them. While many clubs have now built new stadiums further away from the town center, the pre-match pub is still a fundamental part of the English soccer experience. You meet up with your mates, chew the fat, and get tanked up ready for the game. If your team is playing badly, you might even joke about skipping the match altogether and staying in the boozer, but you always end up doing your duty, tearing yourself away from your pint and heading to the ground. Because that’s what you do.  It is considered perfectly reasonable to roll out of a pub at five to three and stumble into the stadium. For away games, the pubs directly outside the stadium are generally not welcoming for away fans, so you tend to congregate in pubs a little further away, which might necessitate a ‘fast stagger to the match’, in order to get to the ground on time. Whenever Ipswich were playing an away game in London, the London branch of the supporters club would always designate a pub for everyone to meet, sometimes a stop or two away on the tube, and we would generally all walk to the stadium together, but that was a pretty small group and the aim was generally to make sure nobody got lost on their way to the stadium, rather than being any expression of unity.

The other factor at work here, of course, is that there are no independent supporters groups to organize a march to the match. That will be a recurring feature when looking at why English soccer is so different from elsewhere.

By the way, while alcohol is available in English stadia now, you still aren’t allowed to take your beer to your seats for the most part. Amnesty International has been informed.



Crystal Palace tifo in 2013

Nope, there’s no tifo either. The nearest thing you will generally see is the English flag with the name of the club written across the horizontal red line. These are particularly popular at England national team games, where you will see these flags all along the front of the stands. But these sometimes pop up at club games too, particularly if the fans are travelling to the game by bus; the flags will be hung in the windows, providing a nice convenient target for opposing fans to aim bricks at. Other than that, English fans tend to see the big tifo displays from continental Europe and think, “oh, how pretty, how…… EUROPEAN”, and that’s about as far as interest goes.



Contrary to what the Sounders FO would have you believe, not every soccer fan on the planet is obsessed with scarves. The Germans love them, of course, and back in the days before replica shirts, they were a pretty popular way of showing your colors in England too. My Ipswich scarf was very well used growing up; not only did I wear it to the game, but we would also hang it out of the car window while driving up the A12 from London to Ipswich. Nowadays, though, the only people who really wear scarves are people who get cold at the game. Because soccer is a winter sport in England, and frankly, wearing a scarf in England in January makes a hell of a lot more sense than wearing it in Seattle in July.

Nowadays, the attire of choice for most English soccer fans is the dreaded replica shirt. They are, of course, hideously expensive, and then the clubs change their shirts every two years so that the fans will go out and buy new ones. Personally, I always refused to ride that particular rip-off train, recycling my shirt for a good 4-5 years before succumbing to buy a new one. A lot of people now go for the ‘retro shirt’, old-style cotton jerseys with big beefy collars from the glorious days before shirt sponsorship, shirts that will never be out of date (or style). But still, the majority of fans shell out for the replica shirts, lining the pockets of the already-overweight club chairmen in the process.

Note the extensive presence of replica shirts and the absence of scarves.

Many of you will have seen the old thread on the ECS boards about ‘casual clothing’, wearing cooler clothes to soccer games. Many Liverpool fans hark back to the glory days of the 60s, when apparently every fan would roll up to Anfield dressed up like a member of the Beatles (look up ‘Harry Enfield – The Scousers Visit London’ on YouTube for a truer interpretation of how Liverpool fans look). Personally I’ve always felt that people who want to bring fashion into the football stadium would be better off skipping the game altogether and just going shopping with the missus, but maybe that’s just because I have zero sense of style. But still, the scene is there, and if it takes some money away from the greedy club chairmen, all power to it I suppose.


Capos and songs

My father-in-law, a Reading season ticket holder, came over and watched the Sounders game against Toronto in April 2010. He loved the game and the experience, but boy, did he hate having a capo tell him what to do. This is a very alien thing for an English fan – there are no capos, and no hierarchy of any sort, in the stands of English soccer stadia. This causes a number of very interesting differences to what you would see in capo-led stands, some of which are positive, others negative.

The absence of a capo is significant, not just in terms of the nature and timing of the songs that results, but also in terms of the discipline factor. In general terms, having a capo definitely increases the level of participation in a section. In an English stadium, if the team is playing badly, or the game is dull, the crowd will tend to go quiet. This is somewhat counter-productive, obviously, as those moments when the team is struggling are the exact moments when they need the crowd to get behind them and gee them up. The moment after the team concedes is a great example. It’s human nature to feel a bit down when your team concedes, so people don’t really start songs in those moments. So, in English stadiums, it the fans will go quiet. But the capo, of course, has the assigned goal of keeping the section active regardless of what is going on on the field, and those moments of struggle are the moments when they really earn their stripes. The capo makes sure there is a constant flow of songs.

The other significant piece factor here is the element of accountability that the capo brings. In general terms, nobody will make you feel bad in an English stadium for not singing. It does happen, but not very often. If there is a capo up there working his bollocks off, however, you’re going to feel guilty that he’s giving his all and you’re just standing there. If the capo happens to glare at you, then you’re really going to want to contribute, because let’s be honest, nobody wants to get glared at by Heather. And if everyone around you is singing and you’re not, at some point, someone is going to yell at you to get your butt in gear.

In terms of the types of songs that are produced, having a capo enables a section to produce longer, more complex, more sophisticated songs. A pogo, for example, would never work in an English stadium, because it would take too long to spread across the section. It needs to be announced in advance. Longer, more detailed songs are also more difficult to perform without a capo and a drum to keep people in time and in tune. (ok, maybe just ‘in time’ ). English stadia do have call-and-repeats, but they tend to be fairly basic, such as the ubiquitous ‘barmy army’ chants that are heard almost everywhere. Chants in England are generally short, simple tunes that get turned into long songs with numerous repetitions.

So, on many levels, not having a capo can be seen to be detrimental to achieving good levels of support. But there are also strong advantages to not having a capo too. One very clear positive is the level of creativity that you can get. Clearly, if you have thousands of people, any one of whom could potentially come up with a clever chant, then you’re going to get more creativity than if you just basically have a few people trying to come up with things. Sure, you can dream things up and post them on the internet in between games, but the best chants are the ones that people come up with on the spur of the moment. You can see it happen in capo-led stands – such as the brilliant “Fuck You Big Bird” chant that was aimed at the awful Whitecaps mascot/cheerleader in Vancouver recently – but they are very rare. In England, you hear these kinds of clever chants all the time.

Local derbies such as Southampton v Portsmouth are always passionate affairs

The other strong argument that can be made in favor of the English approach is that it is just flat-out more in tune with the game itself. Sure, if the game is dull, then having a quiet crowd too doesn’t really do much for the experience. But then when the game is exciting, and the crowd is into it, then having the crowd respond to that is a really beautiful thing. Sometimes, with a capo, everything feels just a bit too structured, too sanitized. Every capo has their favorite songs, but sometimes, those songs may not fit the moment. If the will of the majority is deciding what happens in the stands, then you get that extra excitement, that extra commitment to what is being done. To give an example, take the last 10 minutes of the home game against Tigres – I was totally engrossed in the action on the field. In an English stadium, that would have been a moment when a short, simple, scream-it-loud chant, repeated over and over, would have felt absolutely perfect; something you don’t have to focus too hard on, because in that moment, you really don’t care about discipline, or capos, or being a good supporter – you just want to scream and will your team to victory, and that’s all you can think about. Instead, we all ended up having to find our neighbor and concentrate on a pogo. That’s not a knock on our capos, or indeed capos in general – it’s just an inevitable result of having one individual standing at the front whose role is to structure and discipline. Sure, we are all supporters, and one of the big reasons why we do what we do is to influence the game and boost our team, but sometimes, the greatest high comes from letting the GAME drive YOU, losing yourself in it, living that experience. That’s really what drives the English soccer experience, and the reason why there is, in my opinion, nothing that can match it when it is done right.

There’s also a decent argument to say that short songs are just better. Maybe they aren’t as aesthetically pleasing, but there’s nothing more exciting than hearing that wall of noise as a song rumbles along, occasionally lulling along at a quiet level, then bursting back into life. Again, the capo generally has a fixed idea of how long a song should be, but for an English-style song, that thing can roll along for as long as the people will it to. Since you don’t have to think about it too hard, you just sing and sing on autopilot.

Ultimately, as in any instance where questions of ‘freedom vs structure’ are involved, the success or otherwise of ‘granting’ extra freedom really depends on the will of the people to do the right thing and make it work. Without wishing to sound like a ‘good old days’ kind of guy, the fact is that when I started going to soccer in England 30 years ago, not having a capo really wasn’t an issue at all. If you stood on the terraces of an English soccer stadium, you did so because you loved to support, and nobody needed to be disciplined to do so, nobody had any trouble coming up with a song to sing. Now, for reasons I’ll hit on below, the landscape has changed. I went back to England at Christmas and went to my first Ipswich game for nine years and was just horrified by what I found. The North Stand at Portman Road, where some of my greatest life moments have occurred, was like a morgue. Of the 90 minutes of game time, they maybe sang for 5. It was awful, like meeting up with your first high school love and finding out that she ended up a serial killer, or a Tory. I left there feeling like if I ever moved back to England, the first thing I would do would be to flyer the entire stadium and get a continental-style supporters group set up. This was just one experience, of course, but indicative of the downfall that supporter culture is experiencing in many places across the land.