The Roker Ramble: Can We Learn Anything From The World Of Rugby?

Football is a gentlemen's game, played by thugs. Rugby is a thug's game, played by gentlemen.

The motto of the Roker Ramble is that there is a big world of non-Sunderland AFC related sport out there, and we are more than happy to use this feature to get outselves out there and see what we can find.

Since my move to the bottom end of France, I've been forced to embrace rugby union. Football is as good as meaningless in my home town of Castres, so much so that when the World Cup was on in the summer, bars were either empty, or the televisions were showing anything but the grand stand events.

Rugby however, well that's big business around here. Castres are a fantastic team, and while Friday nights at the stadium will never replace the yearn that I have for football, and my, do I miss it, it goes some way to softening the considerable blow.

And it is a certain part of rugby that got me thinking with this column in mind. With the World Cup also in full effect, it seems to be the perfect time to consider whether there is anything we can learn from egg-chasing, and in particular, its crowds.

Growing up as a die-hard football fan, it never ceases to amaze me that when I go to rugby matches, there is no segregation between home and away fans. Although I have no idea what they are saying, it is great to see opposition supporters walking to the game together, chatting about the upcoming game and sharing a beer together in the bar.

Which got me wondering, would this ever work in football?

As a young fan, as some of you will recall, I used to spend my weekends watching Barnsley FC. What made this a lot of fun at times was the fact that almost all of my friends were Huddersfield Town fans. Imagine the feelings that we have for Mags fans, dilute it by about 12,000, and that should explain the rivalry between the two. Yes we were both Yorkshire teams, but they were West Yorkshire, us South, and we were more interested in baiting fans of the two Sheffield teams, or even Rotherham if we were really desperate.

We lived within a few miles of each other and attended the same school. My point is, my mates and I used to walk down to the ground together after we'd shared a drink in whichever town the game was being played in on that occasion. However, when the game was over, we would be separated by as many police that could be afforded to the game, as fans were kept as far apart as possible. 

A question to ask at this stage, would be of the authorities that are put in charge of policing the football matches that we attend. We are always told that the segregation of home and away fans is for our own safety, however, in recent times, trouble at football grounds is becoming more scarce. Could the fact that the police are creating a situation where we feel that we need to be protected actually be the cause of the problem in the first place?

Football fans are tarred with a tribal brush. The passion that courses through us during a match, an adreneline-fuelled hatred for the opposition, sees some supporters transformed from everyday people to animals with blood lust. I'm not generalising about the football-supporting community on the whole, but it would be equally blinkered to say that it doesn't apply to anyone at all.

However, is the fact that the police are forcing us apart, apparently for our own safety, only serving to encourage this thought that we shouldn't trust, or perhaps we should even fear the fans that are sitting in the away enclosure. The same fans that we walked to the match with, happily chatting away on the way? Are the police actually helping create the tension that they are apparently protecting us from? 

The rugby matches that I was talking about earlier in this game have a tiny police presence compared to English football. Although we still have a number of stewards, they are generally only there to create a path for the players to leave the field at the end of the game, if they choose to. Reguarly, a large proportion of the crowd will be on the field at the end of a game, but there is no malice here. Whereas football players will run from the pitch to escape fans, and there have been examples of them being assaulted recently which justify this, the rugby players will pose for photos and chat with fans well after the final whistle.

To get back to my previous point, a great deal of you reading this piece will have had very similar experiences, and they are quite possibly more personal than me going to watch Barnsley with my mates. How many people on here are part of a family that includes both Sunderland and Newcastle fans? Do you travel to the match together on 'the big day'? Do you share a pint or two before or after the game? 

My question is, could we possibly enjoy a match more if we were able to sit anywhere in a ground, and be able to rip into our friends as they sat next to us? How enjoyable would it be to cheer on a Sunderland winner against the Mags if your mate was in the chair next to you, with his head in his hands.

Obviously, there are serious reasons as to why this couldn't, or wouldn't work.

The ultimate horror story that I've been told by someone who witnessed football hooliganism comes from my mum. As a young woman, she travelled to Liverpool with my uncle and a couple of his friends to watch a Barnsley game. When one of the blokes that they were with got separated from the group after the match, they didn't see him again until the next day, in hospital. Upon realising that he was a Barnsley fan, a group of Liverpool supporters set upon him with a Stanley knife, and he was lucky to escape with 88 stitches.

It's easy to argue that trouble in football has calmed down a lot in recent years, but you only have to look back to the 'Richardson Derby' to see how quickly things can get out of hand when something as passionate as football is involved. It wouldn't suprise me if people being separated by the police on that day had actually met before, or worked in the same office building.

Maybe I'm approaching this from the wrong angle though. Perhaps the whole point of a team's fans all being sat together is the sense of community and camaraderie that comes from being part of a football crowd. Would it be as impressive a sound when fans start singing their team's songs if they were scattered across a stadium, instead of all packed into the same area? Would we be able to grab a stranger and hug them to celebrate a last-minute winner if it was against their team?

Perhaps football fans and rugby fans are literally just two different animals. While fans of the egg-shaped ball have been raised on a game where it is perfectly acceptable to be friends with your rival, modern football fans were brought up at a time when it was more important to stand up for your team, whether that be through violence or not, and to hate the opposition. 

So I open this article to your thoughts. Could you envisage going to a match and sharing a stand with the day's opposition's fans? Or is it something that you would absolutely despise? Get in touch via the comments, and let us have a little chat about this situation.

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