How a wish became a nightmare

Twitter has always been my favourite social media platform. Quick, concise and in-the-moment, it’s a place where I go for breaking news, topical humour and the latest on Aston Villa. I also occasionally (and against my better judgment) use it as my own personal soapbox.

It was the latter that got me into a bit of bother at the weekend.

While I appreciate the last few days have been a significant time for a lot of people in this country, as a non-Monarchist, it’s been a bit surreal. My attitude to these things is largely to ‘live and let live’, but I couldn’t help but take to Twitter to gently poke fun of the more absurd aspects of the spectacle.

The “Stone of Destiny”, FFS. Amirite?

My ‘each to their own’ philosophy, however, was tested at times by the stance of different organisations. For instance, I was puzzled that the famously impartial BBC was showing unquestioning and unwavering support for a political model that carries an unelected Head of State, something that was also called into question by the anti-Monarchy lobbying group, Republic. Similarly, I was perplexed by the Premier League’s decision to nail its colours to the mast by insisting on a rendition of ‘God Save The King’ before the weekend’s games.

Then, on Saturday evening, fatigued by the constant and unavoidable blanket coverage I’d been bombarded with throughout the day, I was exposed to an act of protest that delighted the rebel inside me. The anthem was played at Anfield, the home of Liverpool Football Club, where it was greeted with a deafening chorus of boos.

So, onto the soapbox I went. I shared a video of the scene to my timeline, accompanied with the following text:

“I wish Villa fans could be more like this. I appreciate not everyone will agree.”

It was, as with most of my Tweets, a half-baked half-thought, devoid of context. It was, however, caveated with an acknowledgment that it wouldn’t be a popular opinion.

I had thought, naively, that like most of my Tweets it would largely go unnoticed, under the radar, into the ether. Then the rumblings of discontent began.

To offer the context the Tweet was lacking, I wasn’t saying that I think Villa fans should boo the national anthem before games. It happens so rarely that it would be a strange hill to die on.

It wasn’t that I disrespect the national anthem, or Britain, or anything like that.

It was an admiration for the spirit of the action more than the action itself.

I generally find Liverpool fans a bit tedious. Full of themselves. “Offended by everything, ashamed of nothing” is a term I’ve used in the past. Oh, and the Anfield atmosphere is a total myth, of course.

However, I do have a begrudging admiration for how resolute Liverpool fans are when it comes to defending their city and their club. From doggedly campaigning for justice for the Hillsborough victims to the way it held ‘The Sun’ to account for the vicious lies it told in the aftermath, they are, if nothing else, a set of supporters that won’t buckle when faced with adversity. It’s a spirit that led to Saturday’s act of rebellion, being a city that was treated so poorly by a cruel Government in the 1980s that a ‘managed decline’ was seriously considered in Westminster.

Ultimately, when I said “I wish Villa fans could be more like this”, it was more a longing for that “don’t fuck with us” spirit rather than a simplistic “Villa should boo the anthem”.

It’s a fire I’ve had in my belly for a while now. In 2020, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement rose to prominence, driven by constant police brutality against people of colour in America. Premier League players, inspired by the uprising, opted to ‘take the knee’ prior to matches as their own show of protest against institutionalised racism.

If there was ever a cause that Villa fans should have adopted as their own, it was Black Lives Matter. After all, Dalian Atkinson, revered as a club legend, was a black man whose life was cruelly taken, unlawfully, at the hands of police in 2016.

And yet, when fans returned to Villa Park following the Covid lockdown in May 2021, players were booed by a sizeable chunk of our support when they knelt. It was a reaction that filled me with utter despair and revulsion. How on earth could we reject an act of protest that was arguably more pertinent to us than any other set of supporters?

I wish we’d been more vociferous in our support.

My frustrations go beyond that, though. Earlier this year, despite previous pledges to the contrary, Villa confirmed a deal that would install an overseas gambling firm as its front of shirt sponsor. A strong statement from fan groups briefly offered hope that we wouldn’t lie down and lower ourselves to such an agreement, only for them to back down completely when the club shrugged off their pleas.

I wish we’d kept the pressure on.

Then more recently, we had huge increases on the prices of season tickets at Villa Park, a decision that will inevitably mean supporters on lower incomes, amid a cost of living crisis, will be priced out.

And yet, for everybody saying it was wrong, you’d find just as many people defending the board’s decision.

I wish we’d been more united in calling it out.

You might notice that I’m using the words ‘I wish’ a lot. The Tweet that started all this began with the same two words.

It’s worth pointing out, because I wish for lots of things. I wish I was younger. I wish I was rich. I wish I played for Villa. I spent a lot of my younger years wishing to marry Kate Winslet. I wish everything could be OK.

Wishing for something is just that. It’s often implausible, unfeasible, but you wish for it anyway.

I know I can’t change the mentality of Villa fans. It would be beyond arrogant of me to suggest that anyone should approach things in exactly the same way I do. When I said “I wish Villa fans could be more like this”, that’s all it was. A bloody wish.

And yet, the abuse that came through on Saturday night into Sunday morning would suggest I’d grievously offended people I’ve never even met.

I was called a ‘cunt’ more times than I care to mention.

I was repeatedly told I’m not welcome at Villa Park.

A few people grasped at my ancestry, their underlying anti-Irish bigotry coming to the fore, one of them repeatedly using the derogatory term “Mick”.

One person even told me I have shit hair!

The comments that irked most though were the ones that implied that I was ashamed of where I’m from. Telling me “if you don’t like it here, leave.” Some even urged me to “gO bAcK tO wHeRe I cAmE fRoM” (born in Sutton Coldfield, raised in Aldridge, live in Erdington, but OK!)

It bothers me because to imply I’m not proud of where I come from is just so plainly not true. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am a tireless, tubthumping supporter of Birmingham and the West Midlands. I’m constantly backing this wonderful part of the world. In 2020, I took a paycut to take on a role at the Birmingham 2022 Organising Committee, and I spent more than two years there giving everything I had to help deliver that unforgettable event, all for the love of my city.

Ultimately, I think it’s a bit weird to make out that the only way of showing pride in where you’re from is to blindly wave a flag and support the state. In fact, why would I? As Brummies, all we ever get from the wider country is the piss taken out of us. Mocking our accent, questioning our intelligence, criticising our city. Why the bloody hell should I associate with that?!

But, as I’ve already said, live and let live, and each to their own. If you want to support the Monarchy, if you want to celebrate, I’m all for that, and will defend your right to express your opinion. Just don’t call me a C-word for expressing mine.

A final note on this: When we talk about being kind, we often say something like “because you never know what other people are going through”. It just so happens that, right now, I’m going through the hardest time of my life.

Being bombarded with mountains of disgusting, violent abuse was the last thing I needed over the weekend. I dealt with it on this occasion by deleting the Tweet and locking my account, but I’m acutely aware that such an aggressive pile-on could push more vulnerable people over the edge.

Individuals will always have different opinions to you, but the mark of a decent person is their ability to accept and tolerate difference. In short: let’s just be bloody nice to each other, shall we?

You know we should. We really should.


The Bite – A PR perspective

At work today, I was asked to write a short piece analysing the fallout of the Luis Suarez biting incident from a PR perspective. I got a bit carried away, wrote too much, and had to cut it down. Which is good news for you lot, because it means I can use the unabridged version as a blog. Reduce, reuse, recycle, as Bob The Builder might say…

You know he might. He really might.

They say there’s a fine line between genius and madness, and there’s few better examples of that than the case of Luis Suarez.

The full scale of his ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ character came into full focus this week when, fresh from demonstrating his brilliance in effectively dumping England out of the World Cup, the mercurial Uruguay forward hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons after sinking his teeth into the flesh of the Italian defender, Giorgio Chiellini.

Amid a widespread outpouring of shock and condemnation as Suarez became the centre of a storm of controversy for the umpteenth time, there was also room for some quirky creativity from brands who quickly capitalised on the incident.

Serial stunt specialists Specsavers leveraged its iconic ‘Should have gone to Specsavers’ line by alluding that Suarez may have confused his opponent with the popular Italian dish, cannelloni, while Snickers referenced its ‘Eat a Snickers’ campaign with the slogan ‘More satisfying than an Italian’.  Official World Cup partners also got in on the act, with Budweiser pointing out the virtues of its twist cap Bud Light bottles, while McDonalds in Uruguay were keen to stress that biting on a Big Mac is preferable to chowing down on Chiellini.

However, while some brands reveled in the limelight, there were others left scratching their heads as they pondered their next move. Suarez’s boot sponsor, Adidas, has announced that it is to review its relationship with the striker, and with a four month ban from all football activity now in effect, he has already been dropped as the worldwide ambassador of 888 Poker.

Most fascinating of all, though, will be the response of Liverpool Football Club.

With its questionable PR activity surrounding some of Suarez’s previous controversies still fresh in the minds of the powers-that-be at the Anfield club, including the disastrous t-shirts stunt after he was charged with racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra, its reaction to this incident will require careful consideration.

While there will be a temptation for the club to rid itself of a player who has once again dragged its reputation through the mud, losing somebody of his unquestionable quality would without doubt reduce its prospects on the field.

In this case, the most fascinating clash for Liverpool this season is the brand versus the team. What will the outcome be? Now there’s a debate to really get your teeth into.