The recent success of the informal campaign to bring the deeply unpleasant nature of Man United's fans chanting against Arsene Wenger to the wider attention of the public is to be applauded. Led by Arseblogger, the issue made it to the wider press last week, at long last, and led to widespread condemnation against Man United, and also against Amazon and Play whose website carried a CD including a no-doubt charming rendition of the "Sit Down You Peadophile" chant.
The sustained level of abuse directed at Wenger by United fans for singing that chant for around the last 10 years probably puts the incident in a minority of cases. Wenger is in that unusual position, along with Ferguson, of having enjoyed a long career in the Premierleague. Whereas the same cannot (yet) be said of Phil Brown.
However, I have no doubt that Phil Brown, given his nature, will also be subjected to regular abuse by opponents fans. But is that abuse as "appalling" as the abuse given to Wenger? Maybe it is? Maybe not. I guess it will depend on what is said. But I think the question poses something of a problem for those who want to see anything wider done by the FA, or even the Police, about the treatment that United fans give Wenger.
The Man United chant against Wenger is factually incorrect and rude to an extreme degree. It is abusive chanting in the proper sense of the word "abuse". However, it is not racist, homophobic, sexist or any of the other trigger events that get the police interested under discrimination or race relations legislation.
Instead, the police have to look at the Football (Offences) Act 1991, section 3 of which makes it an offence to:
"(1) ......engage or take part in chanting of an indecent or racialist nature at a designated football match.
(2) For this purpose—
(a) “chanting” means the repeated uttering of any words or sounds [(whether alone or in concert with one or more others)] ; and
(b) “of a racialist nature” means consisting of or including matter which is threatening, abusive or insulting to a person by reason of his colour, race, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins."
Now, whilst the Police were able to prosecute several Spurs fans for racist chanting against Sol Campbell last season, the Man United chant could only fall within the area of "indecent chanting".
Its a typically vague and somehow appropriately English notion to describe the offence as "indecency", which is a subjective test and hard to quantify.
However, I am sure that there are chants at the Emirates almost every match which could be described as "indecent" - it perhaps depends on your expectations of the atmosphere, your sense of humour and the thickness of your skin. I also say this against the background that the general level of Arsenal fans behaviour is impeccable compared to most other grounds.
However, there can be no doubt that chants occur at the Emirates that are offensive towards Jews, for instance, which would also potentially fall within the racist or indecent offense chanting described above.
Now, my question is, what are we to do about that? And where should we draw the line?
Clearly, you cannot defend anti-Jewish chanting. It is abusive and I would urge all Arsenal fans not to join in and to do their best to stamp it out. However, to take a slightly more extreme example at the other end of the sclale of what I am talking about, there are quite a lot of people who really don't like referees. I mean, really, really, don't like referees, to the extent that 99% of the time the referee is a disgrace for not having perfect vision and getting every decision correct. And those sorts of people call the referee lots of very naughty and offensive words, as loudly and as often as they can.
Now, if you are going to be puritan about it, chanting that Graham Poll is a fucking arsehole over and over again is clearly offensive and possibly indecent. It may also be factually incorrect.
Similarly, the repetitive suggestion that Scousers are all jobless scroungers who should sign on the dole, with a pen, in their hand, might be thought as being less offensive, and probably not indecent, but gets closer to an insult by reason of someone's origin. And we all know how much Scousers like to whinge (just ask Boris Johnson).
So its not inconceivable that Arsenal fans could end up in the dock for signing the Spurs chants (and rightly so). But the charmers at the FA could also lead a campaign to punish any fans who chant offense about the ref, which is an entirely different prospect. Or the whinge-ridden scousers could use the Wenger situation as a platform for their own campaign to clampdown on the "sign-on" chant.
And if that sounds unbelievable, then the recent experiences of the Eduardo 'divegate' scandal should show that anyone who has expectations of universal fairness and consistency within the system will be sorely disappointed.
I guess the point is that if the United chant was an isolated incident, its hard to say the Man United chant against Wenger goes beyond what might be expected at a football match. What makes it different, in my book, was its sustained nature over many years and it was great news that something will be done about it. But its not easy to see where the lines should be drawn for "indecent" chanting and these things might well be better dealt with along these informal lines, using pressure via the media, rather than police involvement.