Robert Dillon: Sporting Declaration

OVER the years I’ve attended dozens of English Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League games, at venues such as Wembley (old and new), Old Trafford, Emirates Stadium and Highbury.

DEFIANT: The "Red and Black Bloc" during last week's Sydney derby. The club they support, Western Sydney Wanderers, will lose competition points if fans again misbehave. Picture: AAP

DEFIANT: The "Red and Black Bloc" during last week's Sydney derby. The club they support, Western Sydney Wanderers, will lose competition points if fans again misbehave. Picture: AAP

Never once have I seen anyone let off a flare.

I’ve covered hundreds of rugby league games, including State of Origins and grand finals. Not a single flare. I’ve watched cricket Tests from the SCG to Lords. Flare free. The London Olympics? Zero flares. Wimbledon? As if.

So call me a narrow-minded killjoy, but why is it that ripping flares seems to be de rigueur for certain fans of Western Sydney Wanderers?

The easy answer, of course, is that they are drop-kicks. Not quite the full quid.

But let’s not jump to conclusions. Unfortunately there is more to it than that.

The real problem is that, at some point since their inception, these so-called fans have been given enough oxygen to believe they provide the entertainment, they deserve the attention, and that the game could not possibly survive without them.

It’s an interesting concept. A bit like the chicken and the egg. And it’s true, professional sport relies on paying spectators.

But which came first?

My guess is that thousands of years ago, paleolithic man started kicking a bison skull around, and their contemporaries gathered around to watch, rather than a crowd gathered for no apparent reason and someone decided to kick the skull around to entertain them.

Unfortunately paleolithic man probably had a higher IQ than certain people who claim to be Wanderers “supporters”.

Paleolithic man would have been smart enough to figure out that flares serve no useful purpose other than perhaps saving your life if a boat is sinking.

For the fans who are letting them off, it is presumably an ego trip.

Whoever is in the stadium, enjoying the game, is suddenly distracted by a commotion in the crowd. The on-field action becomes an afterthought as plumes of smoke engulf whole bays, and security staff rush to deal with the disturbance.

And it’s not just the flares, or the confrontations with security and police. Who can forget the giant homophobic banner produced last season to lampoon Sydney FC coach Graham Arnold?

Two years ago, after repeated warnings, Football Federation Australia decided enough was enough, identifying trouble-makers and banning them.

Supporters of the outcasts rallied behind them by boycotting matches, claiming they were the victims of a terrible miscarriage of justice.

Last weekend they staged another anti-authoritarian protest during the Sydney derby, as members of the “Red and Black Bloc”, wearing T-shirts reading “FCK FFA”, let off flares and made an exhibition of themselves.

They also waved banners emblazoned with the numbers 1312, which apparently is code for “all cops are bastards”.

Then followed a diatribe on social media, in which they declared: “There are only a handful of people with enough balls to stand up to the FFA, the rest have sold their souls along with their dignity and respect … we encourage all fans across the league to support their teams in the way they see fit. This is what separates our sport from the others.

“Its [sic] time the fans took back ownership of this sport from the dictatorship.”

Meanwhile, the club they support has been hit with a suspended sentence of three competition points, which they will forfeit if there is any further anti-social behaviour in the grandstands.

It’s not as if the threat of deducting points is an unprecedented development. FFA officials have pondered such a sanction on several occasions, but clearly view it as the last resort.

Yet now the Wanderers “supporters” are almost daring the governing body to impose such a penalty, regardless of the impact it could have on their team’s finals prospects.

With “friends” like these, who needs enemies?

All of which has unfolded at a time when eight of the 10 A-League clubs, including Wanderers, have suffered a downturn in home-ground attendances.

According to Jets coach Ernie Merrick, the Melbourne Victory team he coached to a 6-0 grand final win against Adelaide in season two of the A-League would struggle to make the finals this year.

That is how much he believes the competition standard has improved over the past decade, yet crowds are heading in the opposite direction.

It’s a worrying trend, although fortunately for Newcastle, they are one of the two clubs whose home turnouts have improved.

It’s hard to imagine the prima donna antics at Allianz Stadium last weekend will encourage anyone – especially young families – to consider attending a game any time soon.

While the passion of the Red and Black Bloc is undeniable, and their declaration that “football in this country is in an absolute shambles” is perhaps not totally unfounded, I find it hard to see how they are contributing anything that will improve the situation.

If they’re not happy with the game-day product, nobody is forcing them to watch it. Maybe they should consider finding a new hobby, like joining a motorcycle gang or becoming graffiti vandals. It would be no great loss if they just disappeared altogether.

The rest of us would prefer to watch the football – players with flair, not idiots with flares.

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