The sports blog: Freedom of speech in football

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IF YOU’VE turned on your TV screen, listened to the radio or read any newspapers lately, then you won’t need me to tell you there’s something of a crisis going on in Libya at the moment, writes Simon Downes.

Now there’s a reason I write about sport and not news, but from what I can gather, the unrest we’re seeing in north Africa - and elsewhere for that matter - appears to come from the population in those countries being sick of suppression. The good people of Libya have clearly become disillusioned with Colonel Gaddafi, and their frustration has eventually resulted in bloodshed.

That’s enough of the serious stuff.

However, about the same time that David Cameron was authorising British fighter jets to fly off to southern Europe to help keep the peace, stewards at Villa Park were busy tearing down banners illustrating the discontent of football fans. Work that one out!

Now, I’m not suggesting that the British government should enforce a no fly zone over Birmingham, but it does make you think. To what extent can football fans criticise their club or an individual before they cross the line?

Of course any acts or threats of physical violence shouldn’t be tolerated in any circumstances, but what harm was a banner made by Aston Villa fans reading ‘Houllier out’ really doing?

That’s just censorship - and last weekend’s Premier League game between Villa and Wolves wasn’t the first time I’ve seen it. The Holte End is infamous for making itself heard, but even further down the leagues will be examples of fans seemingly not being allowed to have their voices heard - you just don’t hear about it as much.

I remember going to watch Dons at Walsall at the end of last season and being stunned to see stewards weigh in to take down a banner draped over the top tier in the home end, and fans then escorted from the ground. The Walsall board must have been extremely cheesed off to authorise that - unlike Villa they can’t exactly afford to lose supporters.

But I suppose that’s the key word - supporters. Should a fan back the club, manager and players through thick and thin, no questions asked? Or do they have a right to speak out when the feel strongly enough that things aren’t quite right.

I’ve had arguments - and almost come to blows in fact - with fellow football fans over the rights and wrongs of booing their team off the park after a heavy defeat or substandard performance.

You’ve got to be a pretty passionate fan to sit up all night painting your old bedsheets in giant black lettering. So I’m certainly going to listen and respect the views of a fan who goes to that effort. But of course the way most tend to get across their frustration is by giving their team a jolly loud jeering at the full time whistle - and rightly so if they think it’s necessary, particularly if you’ve gone and forked out silly money to be there.

I guess it’s like anything - the more you do it or say it the more it loses its meaning or significance. The only thing the Holte End was guilty of is probably turning on their manager too soon, but then it’s their right to do so and they shouldn’t be made to shut up because of it.

Fickle is a word I’ve heard an awful lot when it comes to fans showing discontent, particularly at the top end of the game. But football is a fickle game - one minute you’re up, the next minute you’re down. That’s what it’s all about.

The fact is that without fans no clubs would exist, and almost always those sitting in the stands will get what they want in the end. Just ask David O’Leary.