Football needs to open up

Round & About

Robbie James, has hung up microphone and presented his last Pompey Live radio show, but finds football leaves him with a sour taste

Football’s left me with an overarching sadness that a game with such a platform, can be closing itself off to so many potential fans.

Sure, rugby union still grapples with red trousers and tan brogues, cricket has begun its long journey away from elitism, and golf might still shout at you for not wearing a shirt and tie in the clubhouse; but football has more to sort than just awful haircuts.

I recently presented my final Pompey Live. Hosting a radio show across multiple platforms covering Portsmouth Football Club has been how I’ve spent most Saturdays for the last three winters. I’m proud of the many things we’ve achieved in that time, especially the increase in coverage of the women’s game and the number of female voices we’ve had on air.

It felt like the right time to leave. There’s other stuff I want to do (like eat cheese) and Portsmouth’s men and women won themselves promotion to the second tier of English football, so it felt like a natural moment to give it to someone else.

Having had some time to reflect, I feel sad and surprised at the sport as a whole.

My experience hosting that show was largely so much fun. Live sport is one of the world’s great thrills, and I will never get bored of broadcasting any kind of live sporting event. It also presented itself with some…be diplomatic Robbie, be diplomatic…interesting happenings.

When it was announced that I was going to become the new face of Pompey Live, the buzz quickly turned to eye rolls and many ‘’oh for fff’’ mutterings when photos of FOURTEEN year old me at a Southampton match emerged. A human with zero hobbies had found their way into my private Facebook account.

For context, Portsmouth and Southampton are notorious rivals, and have been for many a year. Thus ‘’he’s a Southampton fan!!!’’ (or a ‘’scummer’’, as is the noun chosen by Portsmouth fans…something I’ve been referred to more times than my actual name) became the overriding narrative, and quickly spiralled out of control.

This was an unfortunate start for everyone involved, but also the first glimpse I got into the devastating lack of empathy some football fans choose to possess. It was the catalyst which lit a fire that burned for my entire tenure, including false narratives, and some of the worst verbal abuse I could’ve ever imagined, including death threats to me and even more tragically, my colleagues.

I was a 14-year-old boy at a Southampton match. I loved sport. I also attended Portsmouth matches at that age. If someone offered me a ticket to a local game of tiddlywinks on a Wednesday evening I’d take it (providing there were walk on songs). Naturally, you cheer for the team that everyone else around you is supporting. Aside from some short spells of pretending to be invested in a team for the purposes of playground conversation, I’ve never really been devoted to any football team other than AFC Richmond (if you know, you know. If you don’t, watch Ted Lasso).

Football hides behind a giant wall with we’re the most popular sport in the world plastered across it. And it is. But it’s also the snobbiest sport. You must like this team if you live here but you can’t like that team if you live there. You mustn’t be happy for these people and if you are, you’re a traitor. You must take this rivalry seriously. Oh, and you must shout at the referee for doing their job. Is it any wonder that non-football fans respond with ‘’I can’t stand football’’ when asked for their take on the match last night!? It’s Marmite-esque, and I can see why. It doesn’t welcome you in and say ‘’here’s a fun thing you might like, consume it in any way you wish and don’t feel like it needs to be taken too seriously, we’re just here for a nice time’’. Complete nonsense.

The response to challenging any of the above seems to always be met with the same dispiriting line…that’s just football fans for you. Isn’t lambasting opposition players and fans maybe something we should look to cut out? Ah that’s just football fans for you. Why do we normalise derogatory chants towards the referee? Well that’s just football fans for you. Why, when you look around a stadium, do you struggle to set eyes on anyone but a white male? That’s just football fans for you. It’s not a welcoming environment for anyone who isn’t already in it.

I’ll also caveat the above by saying there are great people in football, and I had some lovely interactions. Not everyone who attends The Beautiful Game is there to abuse, or buy into football culture. I’m also aware my experience is nuanced, and Portsmouth still possesses an island mentality (yes, even in 2024 with the M27).

I’d need to make a lot of phone calls, read around 43 journals, and write a three hundred page book if I were to dissect tribalism and distinguish the way in which it’s weaved its way into football’s tapestry; but I can’t be bothered to do that and I have cheese to eat. In a very simple sense, it feels like this sport hasn’t even come close to catching up with the modern world, which I’m desperate for it to do.