How 'taking the knee' spoiled football

6 August 2022

4:30 PM

6 August 2022

4:30 PM

Premier League footballers ‘taking a knee’ came in at the tail end of the 2019-20 season, when stadiums were empty because of the first Covid lockdown. Thus were the game’s moneyed elite spared having to initiate the fad in front of full houses. By the time supporters returned it was a fait accompli, normalised by endless self-righteous newspaper columns and political speeches on air by TV football pundits.

Only one view of the matter was permitted. Any supporter who expressed dissent about the gesture of support for the Black Lives Matter campaign risked being branded a knuckle-scraping racist.

Given that the gesture emerged in the United States as a show of outright rejection towards society – and given that British BLM supporters were at the time merrily defacing the Cenotaph and Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square during their ‘mostly peaceful’ riots – this demand for universal acquiescence was outrageous. While the players may have been down on one knee, the fans were being brought to heel.

Two years on, we learn that knee-taking is to be curtailed in the Premier League. Now it will only be deployed on high days and holidays after being judged to have lost impact and outlived its usefulness.

But the conceit encapsulated by players being allowed to make a political gesture, while paying punters were simultaneously prohibited from expressing disapproval of it, told many match-going supporters all they needed to know about their place in the new football pecking order: right at the bottom of the heap.

There were other clues around to be fair: the last-minute rescheduling of games because of the demands of TV paymasters; the perennial pressure for a contrived ’39th round’ of matches to be staged in the Premier League’s various emerging markets overseas; and most of all the attempt by the ‘big six’ clubs to slam the door on the last vestiges of open competition by awarding themselves permanent places in a proposed new European Super League.

Yet knee-taking was the thing that caused me to bring to an end my eight years as a holder of two season tickets at West Ham. I figured that I would travel to see more of my real team – Cambridge United – instead. But that option disappeared when the powers-that-be at the Abbey Stadium threatened to ban supporters who booed when players performed the knee-taking ceremony. While I would have confined my own response to sullen silence, I messaged the club’s Twitter account to say this proposal was a ridiculous infringement of the rights of supporters to freedom of expression. For that I was blocked. This ended more than 40 years of following the U’s home and away as well.

In the absence of an apology, I don’t propose to go back to matchday Saturdays. I know plenty of supporters who feel the same way. It will be interesting to see how the Premier League fares this season expecting fans to stump up £50 a match and more during a cost-of-living crisis to watch a competition that has become ever-more skewed in favour of the richest clubs.

Gardening and coastal weekend walks have more than filled the gap for me. I wouldn’t trade either in for a return to being taken for granted by a once beautiful game that has morphed into the spoiled sport. I enjoy watching the women’s super league on the TV and may seek out a few non-league matches (‘there’s none of that knee-taking rubbish there’, a mate told me in the pub the other night), but the spell is broken.

English men’s professional football came to regard itself as a matter of life and death for supporters who would, in consequence, put up with any indignity foisted upon them. I have belatedly come to realise that it is a lot less important than that.

The players may no longer be on their knees nearly so often from now on, but don’t be surprised if the finances of plenty of clubs are reduced to that state given the contempt they have shown towards their fan bases.

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