‘It was 10 seconds of stupidity’: Inside the education course for football’s banned fans

‘It was 10 seconds of stupidity’: Inside the education course for football’s banned fans

By Oghale May1,2024

His team were drawing 1-1 at the time. It was late in the game, under the floodlights, when they missed a chance to take the lead.

And that was the moment, Tony, a Sheffield United fan, lost his temper and shouted something at Matt Turner, the Nottingham Forest goalkeeper, that he would never be able to take back.

“We’d just had a shot that had gone wide. The goalkeeper went to pick up the ball from behind the goal and he made a little gesture to the away fans. Nothing bad, nothing that should have upset me, but I lost my cool for 10 seconds. I started shouting, ‘Get on with it, you f—–.’

“It was 10 seconds of stupidity. There were two people in front of me who turned round straight away and said, ‘You shouldn’t be shouting that, you shouldn’t be saying that.’ I knew they were right. ‘I know,’ I said, ‘I’m sorry.’ I knew it was wrong and that I could end up in trouble for it.”

The next day, Tony, who is in his 50s, was reported by his fellow Sheffield United fans. They had the number of his seat at Forest’s City Ground that day and a description of what he looked like. The club got in touch and he accepted straight away that he was guilty of homophobic abuse.

A letter arrived to inform him he was banned from Bramall Lane, pending an investigation, and he was summoned to a police station to determine whether he should face a criminal charge — or if there was another way to deal with it.

All of this brought Tony to the attention of Kick It Out, English football’s largest anti-discrimination organisation, and led to him being referred to a fan education workshop as a form of out-of-court restorative justice.


Matt Turner was the target of ‘Tony’s’ homophobic insult. (Michael Regan / Getty Images)

Tony is not the fan’s real name. He does not want to be identified because of the impact the publicity would have on his family but he has agreed to become the first perpetrator from Kick it Out’s anti-discrimination programme to speak about how it works, what he learnt and the importance of educating offenders that their actions have consequences.

“I didn’t realise Kick It Out had been running since the 1990s,” he says. “I thought it was a new thing and dealt only with racism. Until now, I’d never really thought about other kinds of discrimination. I was never wise to it. But I realise now that I needed to be educated. I’ve learnt my lesson, but I’ve also learnt a lot more.”


We are meeting in Sheffield and, early on, Tony bends down to show something to Alan Bush, Kick It Out’s fan education and engagement manager.

“Have a look at this,” he says, in a broad Sheffield accent.

He pulls up his trouser leg and reveals he is wearing a pair of rainbow socks.

“They were a present. That is one of the daftest things about what I did. My daughter is gay. My stepdaughter, too. They got me the socks for Christmas.”

He met Bush for the first time last September, four weeks after the game at Forest that led to the police becoming involved.

It was a two-hour workshop at the City Ground, Forest’s stadium, and Tony made it clear from the start that he was there to listen and learn.

Bush took him through the various forms of discrimination that pollute the game and talked, in detail, about the impact a hate crime can have on victims.

Bush explained the story about a Tottenham Hotspur supporter who was predominantly involved with the Proud Lilywhites LGBTQ fan group and stopped going to matches because of the homophobic chants.

Using a slide show, he and Tony talked about the racist abuse suffered by England internationals Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford, as well as the experiences of Blackpool’s Jake Daniels and the late Justin Fashanu as gay footballers. They talked about the Rainbow Blades (Sheffield United’s LGBTQ group), why it needed to exist and how its members would feel if they heard one of the club’s supporters shouting homophobic abuse.


Sheffield United captain Oliver Norwood wearing a rainbow armband against Burnley this season. (Matt McNulty / Getty Images)

Then Bush explained the consequences for offenders, with the threat of court cases, prison sentences and travel bans.

“Throughout the session, (Tony) became more and more aware of his wrongdoing,” says Bush. “When we arrived at the hate crime legislation and consequences, he looked shocked at what could have been a different outcome for him, and how it could have changed his life.”

This is Bush’s specialist subject. Kick It Out’s referrals come from either the police or the football clubs and it is Bush’s job to meet offenders, one-on-one, and pass on his recommendations to the relevant clubs. In the last three years, he has delivered more than 200 sessions.

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“The important thing to remember,” he tells Tony, “is that even though you’re calling it a moment of madness, it’s still a hate crime. It caused harassment, alarm or distress. As a result, you could end up in court and be banned from football. You could lose your job and all sorts of other consequences.”

It helps, undoubtedly, that Bush is deeply ingrained in football culture. He dresses like a fan, because that is exactly what he is. He has been going to Newcastle United, home and away, since the days of open terraces at St James’ Park. He is a big guy — cropped hair, Fred Perry shirt, old-school Adidas trainers — and it is easy to understand why your average man on the street would identify with him more easily than, say, a suited Premier League executive.

Nor does it require a long stay in Bush’s company to realise he cares deeply about his work. He has been trained in hate crime procedures and worked as an anti-social behaviour officer in London.


Alan Bush, who runs Kick It Out’s education course for banned fans. (Kick It Out)

“At the end of the session, he asked me what I was going to do when I was allowed to go to matches again,” says Tony. “I told him, ‘I will just sit there quietly and jump up when we score, which isn’t very often as a Sheffield United fan’.

“But Alan said, ‘I don’t want you to be like that, it’s OK to jump up and shout as much as you like, as long as it’s not racism, it’s not against disabled people, gender reassignment or religion and belief’. You realise that football isn’t just for white, straight men. It’s for everyone.”

Of all the people to go on Kick It Out’s rehabilitation workshop, Bush can recall only one occasion when he has found it difficult to get the message through to somebody — a man who had shouted an anti-Muslim term at an opposing player.

Only one person, a member of the England Supporters Travel Club, has reoffended. That person was banned from football for three years and, when that expires, Bush is likely to see him again. The vast majority of people, however, react more positively. Many offenders cannot explain why they have done what they have done.

In Tony’s case, it did not seem to matter on the night that the player he was abusing was straight. The slur was just an unthinking insult that he could have applied to any opponent at that moment. He had not been drinking and did not consider himself to be homophobic.

“He couldn’t give a specific answer for his actions,” says Bush. “He kept stating that it was stupidity, that he didn’t think and that maybe it was ‘banter.’ But he couldn’t settle on any real reason that sat comfortably with him. His main response was that his behaviour was wrong and he wished he could turn the clock back.”

He also got lucky, in one respect. The people who reported Tony did not want to go to court. “I had all that worry hanging over me,” he says. “Your name’s in the newspaper, your address is in the newspaper, you are banned from football (by the court) … you’re publicly humiliated.”

Instead, it is possible to find a shred of positivity from Tony’s story. If Kick It Out’s intention is to educate people and make football a better place, Tony shows it can be done.

Tony talks about passing on what he has learnt to the friends who sit beside him on Sheffield United’s Kop. He admitted what he had done and told them to make sure they never repeated his mistakes. This goes beyond football, too. “I work with gay people,” he says. “Before I went on this course, I would probably have said something to them as a bit of banter, but now I don’t. Because it’s not banter, is it? So I’ve taken it into my workplace, too.”

Bush’s conclusion was that the person sitting in front of him “didn’t need any prompting to show what appeared to be genuine remorse, understanding and empathy while undergoing his learning journey.”

“I sensed that (Tony) was honest with us when he spoke about how ashamed he was of his behaviour,” Bush says. “My gut feeling, from having looked into his eyes for just over two hours, was that he was really sorry for the hurt his words may have caused. On this occasion, the community resolution and out-of-court restorative approach was the right solution.”


Sheffield United fans fill out Bramall Lane. (Darren Staples / AFP via Getty Images)

The sport, as a whole, could probably do with more specially trained experts who, like Bush, can pass on their knowledge in this area. This is, after all, a time when more and more people are heeding Kick It Out’s message to report discriminatory acts. Last season, there was a record number of 1,007 reports. The figures are still going up, which makes the role even more vital.

Tragedy chanting has also started to come under Bush’s remit and, though he is acutely aware of the need for punishment, his firmly held belief for all the different types of offending is that clubs should not issue lifetime bans. “I hate that term,” he says, “because there is no coming back from it.”

For the relevant people at Kick It Out, it is much better to educate offenders and make sure that, when those people are allowed back into stadiums, they have changed their mindset and have a much better understanding of what is acceptable and what is not.

Tony is the perfect example: a man who describes himself as “old-school” but also now says he is “appreciative of the underrepresented groups in today’s society and why it is important to be respectful”.

He has been allowed back into Bramall Lane after signing an ‘ABC’ — an Acceptable Behaviour Contract — and says he would like to meet the fans who reported him. He wants to apologise properly.

He also did something that nobody on the relevant Kick It Out course had done before: he emailed Bush the following day to ask if he could go back to see him again. And that, for Bush, has to be the sign of a job well done.

“Thank you for inviting me to the Kick It Out session,” it read. “I was keen to learn as much as possible from subject-matter experts such as yourself. I found the course very informative and a real eye-opener.

“I learnt a whole range of things, from the differences between misogyny and sexism to what is and what is not socially acceptable to say, shout or chant.

“I have taken away vast amounts of information and I am significantly more aware of the impact that comments can have on other people. I am, again, deeply apologetic for my ignorant words.”

(Top photo: Catherine Ivill / Getty Images)

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