No ‘but’, football needs to work harder to deliver its message - Stuart Rayner

Since the end of last season, football has just been better. But whilst we should celebrate that, there have been worrying trends we must not ignore.

A number of factors have conspired to make the last few weeks so enjoyable. The return of fans which started at the end of last season’s Premier League and the Football League play-offs has made such a difference not just to their moods and the players’ but the actual football - more intense, more positive, better.

Recent weeks have taken it up a notch. Away supporters are back, the best, the die-hards, the noisier and usually least knee-jerk. They make home fans raise their game too. It is why the Football League needs to pull its finger out and cap ticket prices to prevent their exploitation.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The referees must also take huge credit. Overdue, perhaps, but the opening Premier League games have been officiated more as we all want them to be.

Leeds United fans in the stands at Old Trafford. Picture: PA.

Learning from Euro 2020 and their own mistakes, the opening weekend had a much lighter touch. Usually these initiatives start very strongly and fizzle out so fingers crossed this does not. Having had eight players booked at the weekend, Barnsley will probably see it as a Premier League-only phenomenon, but hopefully it filters down.

It has certainly extended to video assistant referees. Reviews are no longer academic exercises in trying to find a reason to disallow a goal or give a free-kick. Decisions have got quicker and offside lines thicker. It counted against Leeds United when Bruno Fernandes completed his hat-trick on Saturday but hopefully we never discuss Patrick Bamford’s armpit again.

More importantly, the ludicrous notion propagated by pundits that in a contact sport any player who feels a touch in the penalty area has “earned” the right to a spot kick has been confined to the bin.

On Monday as he switched on his laptop to speak to the media, Rotherham United manager Paul Warne was bubbling with enthusiasm after watching the weekend games.

In picking Brentford v Arsenal, Manchester United v Leeds, Newcastle United v West Ham United and Manchester City v Tottenham Hotspur even the television schedulers were on top of their games.

“If you feel how good the atmosphere is now and you think how many people lost their lives (during the pandemic) and you lose a game when you’ve competed really well, what is the point of being down about it?” said Warne.

But.

The new Premier League season was hours old when videos of fighting in Manchester were doing the rounds. Leeds fans sang their disgusting song about the 1958 Munich air disaster and those who dropped a Turkish flag on them in a sick reference to Chris Loftus and Kevin Speight were every bit as bad. Tottenham fans aggressively invaded the pitch at full-time on Sunday and Manchester City’s pulled down a rainbow flag. Liverpool’s dished out homophobic abuse.

There were reports of racist and homophobic abuse from Derby County fans. Some supporters still think booing players making a gesture against discrimination – or to call it what it is, supporting discrimination – is acceptable.

Taking the mickey out of opposition fans and booing their players adds to the game, it is not a village tea party, but fighting them, disrespecting the dead, closing football off to fans and players born with skin colours or who have personal preferences different to ours is not.

The message is not getting through to everyone. We cannot let up until it has so in years to come when we talk about how great the football was, there is no “but”.