Soften Up Hard Lad

Natasha Chahal

‘Soften up hard lad’ by Corbin Shaw

He drinks a whisky drink, he drinks a vodka drink
He drinks a lager drink, he drinks a cider drink
He sings the songs that remind him of the good times
He sings the songs that remind him of the better times
Oh Danny Boy, Danny Boy, Danny Boy

I was ten when Chumbawamba released ‘Tubthumping’ in 1997, too young to get the melancholy: it was just something enjoyable to sing along with, and matched the elation of the adults I knew who were happy to see the back of a Conservative government.

According to data compiled by the streaming site Roku, nine out of ten football fans have avoided watching football in the pub, citing ‘getting drenched in beer’ as one of the main reasons. A third of fans have experienced aggressive or intimidating situations. But 84 per cent of those avoiding the pub would go back if improvements were made. So Roku have set up ‘The Quiet Lion’ at a pub in Croydon. Like a silent disco but for football, it allows you to watch matches in ‘headphone mode’. ‘Is this a library?’ is often chanted at matches by fans deriding the opposition for a lack of atmosphere: in this case, it might be justified.

At my local all drinks are served in plastic cups for the big occasions and the landlord locks the doors while the players are on the pitch, allowing a breather only at half time. He’s strict on numbers and won’t let in anyone who looks like trouble. All this to safeguard the pub and punters from – let’s face it – men.

In May, Netflix released The Final: Attack on Wembley, a documentary on the violence and racial abuse during the last European Championship, culminating in the final where England lost to Italy on penalties. Fans in the West End as well as around the stadium, high on alcohol and cocaine and rebounding, perhaps, from Covid lockdowns, ran riot, leaving in their wake what Brent Council’s chief executive described as a ‘scene of devastation’, well before the 8 p.m. kick off.

There are also, however, men using art to create work that challenges stereotypes of maleness in football. Last year, Jeremy Deller, Reuben Dangoor and David Rudnick worked with Arsenal to produce eight new pieces of stadium artwork. The project focuses on community, belonging and support, and features the women’s team as well as the men. Grayson Perry, whose work has often questioned what it means to be English and male, spoke to football fans for his documentary series Full English last year. ‘It’s important to me that my version of England is seen as being English,’ one fan says (it’s something that I think too, though often forget). He has a version of the St George’s flag with the name Jimmy on it, to commemorate a close friend he had met at a football match years earlier, and he swaps other flags with fans from other countries as souvenirs of his travels.

Perry observes that he’s been talking about a more progressive version of English patriotism and is surprised to find it, in all places, in football. ‘You say modern England but to me, this is the only England,’ the fan says.

Corbin Shaw’s work draws on the history of flag-waving and textiles in football. Now based in East London, he was born and grew up in a South Yorkshire ex-mining town. He began making flags after the death by suicide of his father’s longtime friend and companion on the terraces. The first one was a parody of a Sheffield United banner that instead of ‘we hate Wednesday’ said ‘we should talk about our feelings.’ He’s made versions of the St George’s Cross with slogans like ‘I’m never going to be one of the lads,’ ‘God save the queers’ and ‘Soften up hard lad.’ Shaw collaborated with Women’s Aid during the 2022 World Cup to highlight the rise of domestic abuse during football tournaments.

In football men are too often forgiven for the wrong things and penalised for getting it right. Bukayo Saka, who received masses of racist abuse after missing his penalty in the final against Italy in 2021, scored a brilliant late equaliser on Saturday in England’s quarter-final against Switzerland. He scored in the penalty shootout too, prompting Rio Ferdinand to tweet: ‘Where are the racists now???? Probably still celebrating!!!!’ The day before, France had beaten Portugal on penalties after a 0-0 draw. Criticised for his team’s conservative performance, the French manager Didier Deschamps said: ‘If we’re boring you, you can watch something else, it doesn't matter.’ I wish Gareth Southgate said things like this (but he’s never won anything).

Chumbawamba performed ‘Tubthumping’ at the 1998 Brit Awards, adding the line: ‘New Labour sold out the dockers, just like they’ll sell out the rest of us.’ They also poured a bucket of icy water over John Prescott: ‘This is for the Liverpool dockers!’ Keir Starmer has been criticised for selling out Liverpool, too, and my hopes aren’t high for the rest of us, but I’m still happy to see the back of the Tories. A friend observed that if England go all the way – a big if – we’ll never have to worry about a Conservative government again; for superstitious reasons no football fan will ever vote for them. But first we have to beat the Netherlands in the semi-final, where with luck ‘we’ll be singing when we’re winning.’


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