Football’s relationship with remembrance has only caused damage to both

“That’s why. The dead. The body count. We don’t like to admit the war was even partly our fault cos so many of our people died. And all the mourning’s veiled the truth. It’s not “lest we forget”, it’s “lest we remember”. That’s what all this is about – the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence. Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.” – Tom Irwin in ‘The History Boys’

Fred Hargrave, Henry Hargreaves, Richard Herron, Tom Kinson, George Limer, Bill Nixon, Stan Ripley, Leigh Richmond Roose and Jack Shorthouse.

I wonder if those names mean anything to you. I wouldn’t blame you if they didn’t. They’re the names of nine Stoke City players who fought and died in the First World War. Nine players, nearly a whole starting XI. The sheer scale of that war’s destruction sometimes becomes more astonishing if you zoom in, rather than zoom out. Huge figures in isolation become hard to comprehend. Looking at the details truly reveals the horror. Villages who lost every young man, schools who lost students, football clubs who lost players.

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I mention this because football does have an inherent relationship with the World Wars. Players fought and died in them. World Wars have been the only thing to halt the English domestic league season. Football played a major role in raising troop morale, and there are very few people who don’t know the story of the Christmas day football match in no-man’s land.

Football has had a complicated relationship with war and politics, but in recent years football’s relationship with remembrance has only served to cause damage to both. Up until very recently, it wasn’t de rigueur to see football teams take to the field with poppies embroidered in their shirts.

Yet, thanks in no small part to our national newspapers, clubs now feel an obligation to demonstrate that they too, are remembering.

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An obligation, not a choice. Why has football seen such a surge in remembrance day activities? There’s the obvious correlation in the dates, as we approach the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, but more than that, it’s been a reaction to a broader narrative that tells you that remembrance is under threat. Every year stories of poppy-burning, disrespect of war dead and an increase in anti-British sentiment are amplified by the right-wing press.

For these sections of the media, the annual James McClean circus is catnip. Regardless of his consistent explanations of his position, regardless of the constant argument that poppy-wearing is a choice, and regardless of the fact it really is none of our business – McClean’s unadorned shirt will generate clicks, shares, comments and every other kind of metric with which modern journalism now measures success.

This wouldn’t be a circus if the poppy now wasn’t a part of the uniform for footballers every year. It is now the done thing. Regardless of a player’s personal involvement or interest in the history of the poppy, 99% of Premier League footballers wear a poppy in the weeks around Remembrance Sunday. How many of those players think about what the poppy represents before they pull on their special edition shirts? It’s easier for clubs to enforce respect than it is to allow people freedom of choice and expression.

It’s not just McClean. The right-wing poppy police will sensationalise anything this weekend that doesn’t conform with their idea of proper remembrance. The FIFA Poppy Ban, a mistake on the organisation’s part it may have been, were the easiest columns newspapermen ever had to write. It feeds the narrative. It’s the same narrative that tells you to be afraid, that society is getting worse and Traditional British Values (TM) are on the way out.

Whatever your position of McClean, whatever your position on the abuse he received, on his reaction to said abuse, or the reaction to the reaction to his abuse, this is a circus that only exists because football now feels obligated to remember. Yet it doesn’t actually remember. It just makes sure it is seen to be remembering. The poppification of football shirts and football grounds have seen clubs win brownie points, but has it helped? Have the Royal British Legion received thousands more a year as a result of football’s huge outlay on poppies? I hope so, because I don’t think it’s helping the act of remembrance.

Stoke’s Military Matchday, whilst no doubt well-intentioned, smacked of a club covering their tracks – aware of the vitriol that would be direct their way due to their employment of James McClean. The performance of the last post was haunting and beautiful, but all the TV audience heard – where there should have been silence – were chants of ‘Fuck the IRA’. In all this pomp, circumstance and bile, was there more awareness and thoughts of the fallen? Sadly, I think not.

By making sure it’s seen to be remembered, football has created a breeding ground for reactionary opinion and hatred that in the long term only causes it damage. The headlines about McClean, Matic or whatever club ‘hasn’t remembered in the right way’ then only cause damage to the original point of remembrance – to remember. November 11th isn’t about McClean, poppies, sectarianism or hosting a ‘military matchday’ at the ground.

It’s about people like Fred Hargrave, Henry Hargreaves, Richard Herron, Tom Kinson, George Limer, Bill Nixon, Stan Ripley, Leigh Richmond Roose and Jack Shorthouse. Football would do well to remember them.

Lest we forget.

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