Not a lot of non-league football stadiums will greet you with punk music over the tannoy as you walk in, but that is the sort of club Whitehawk FC is. You enter the stadium, have a drink in a German style bierkeller, before joining up with an array of both men and women in the terraces. Rejoicing in character and charm, the club are bringing their own anti-discriminatory agenda to the terraces.
Remember the Wealdstone Raider? “You’ve got no fans!” he cried, somewhat embarrassingly, at the Whitehawk fans. That was the only kind of publicity ‘The Hawks’ had received at the time. But when you consider all that they are doing for the world of football, they deserve so much more. The Raider himself wasn’t an admirer of the Whitehawk following, but they are an unlikely set of fans welcoming variety.
Bar the famous examples at clubs like Clapton FC and Dulwich Hamlet, it is rare for a club to bring their anti-homophobia, anti-sexism and anti-racism stances to the terraces. Renowned for representing its diverse community, Whitehawk are doing the public of Brighton proud. Known for being the hub of LGBT, Brighton is the heart of the Pride scene and a driver in LGBT culture. Take a walk around the city centre, the place is buzzing with pride for its cultural uniquities. ‘Football is for all’, the club sing and label across banners located in the ground; a heartening message that Whitehawk’s superiors must begin to follow.
Central to the heart of this revolution are The Whitehawk Ultras. Like their non-league counterparts from London, they work tirelessly to enhance the reputation of the club and represent a more innovative type of supporter with sound moral intentions. Speaking on behalf of the Ultras is Adam:
“The Ultras label was ironic at first when it was founded by a few friends a few years ago… now it is being treated more seriously,” he said.
The fans are voicing a central message that should resonate across football not just in England, but across the game as a whole. You need not look further than FIFA who state on their website, ‘FIFA is actively committed to fighting all kinds of discrimination within football and within society as a whole.’ While the game struggles with its fight, Whitehawk do more than their bit. The fans remain vocal for the full 90 minutes on match-day, singing about their unity in flicking two fingers up to homophobia, racism, and sexism. They sing proudly in numbers behind a valiant rainbow flag; a bold but positive message to all opposition fans. They are doing it all because they have concerns about the future of the game.
“You look at the average club and think - is being an openly gay player going to be received well by everybody? How well are women treated in football? What about minorities? Is there a place for those who can’t afford going to games because they have been priced out by modern football viewing fans as customers?” Adam says.
This carries substance. At the end of 2016, FA chairman Greg Clarke voiced concerns that an openly homosexual footballer would receive ‘significant abuse’ and was ‘cautious of encouraging people to come out’. The comments were met with wholehearted disapproval, namely from Chris Sutton who claimed “there has never been a better time for a footballer to come out.” Anton Hysen, the son of ex-Liverpool’s Glenn Hysen was described by the BBC as a ‘global one-off’ when he came out. Respect, admiration and praise meet these public statements of sexuality but they remain rare. The game has moved on from the days of lamenting Justin Fashanu, but still, the view is that football is still a poisonous environment. Its culture needs revamping.
It’s a sobering thought. The era of the Premier League has been so fruitful for multiple reasons; revenue, entertainment, and elite competition, but how far does this reach? What is football without its local community? Women’s football has received significant exposure in the past few years. England’s World Cup side reached the semi-finals, the game is increasingly on our TV and in general, sportswomen are being rightly recognised for their accolades. With all of that, it remains a struggle to comprehend a football landscape in Britain where it sits equally next to the men’s game. As men’s football accelerates to a financial peak that we would never have thought possible, the women’s game struggles to even maintain its place in the shadows.
Luckily for the Ultras, they are largely supported by and have productive dialogue with the club’s hierarchy. The punk music on entry to the stadium speaks volumes of how the club embraces the fans’ roots and local punk culture. You can become a member of Whitehawk FC for just £5 a year, where you are promised a place in monthly meetings. For that, you help direct the club, both on and off the pitch. It feels as if the club is co-run, and that, in itself, is wonderful in an age where the game seems to be slipping further away from the fans that play their part in funding it.
“We are supported by the club to quite a big extent, but that doesn’t mean we always share opinions,” Adam continues. “When benefactors wanted to the change the name to Brighton City, we completely opposed it."
The fans were heard, and Whitehawk remained Whitehawk. John Summers, the club chairman at the time Brighton City-gate, stood and took to the terraces away at Chelmsford City and listened to those who opposed the name change. Subsequently, the club withdrew their application. A name change carries with it numerous hazards of loss of identity and character, two things that remain imperative to the club and a fanbase with clear political motives.
Productive dialogue between a club and its fans becomes rarer as you climb the divisions in the Football League. But while Whitehawk are beneficiaries of clear communication, the likes of Hull City, Nottingham Forest, and - even to a degree - Clapton have seen their clubs ravaged by higher powers, demonstrating how powerful a tool it can be if it is harnessed correctly.
It hasn’t always been an easy ride for the Whitehawk fans, who are still shunned by some non-league clubs, none of which he was comfortable to disclaim. Non-league terraces are still an environment rife with discriminatory tension.
“We get mixed reactions. Some clubs like us, some really love us, and some really hate us. We are a friendly bunch, but not everybody likes our stance. You can’t go through life being friends with everybody,” Adam adds.
Delving into such politics is an audacious but vivid message. The Ultras’ few Twitter accounts are enthusiastic about their politics, and Adam explains that they endorse messages that align with those of their own.
“We don’t see football as something separated from daily life and the politics that rule it. We comment on things we feel passionate about, share things we like and dislike. Many of us are definitely lefty types, so it comes with the territory.
“Modern football is even linked with things like gentrification. Football is the main priority here, just not the only one.”
Politics can be sketchy territory, but the Ultras are doing it well. In the grand scheme of things, Whitehawk FC are a novel taster of what football can become. A semi-professional football club are producing a template for anti-discrimination, but whether politics and football entwine is a call that can only be made by each individual fan. One thing that is for certain; Whitehawk are fighting their corner for equality.
The next step? A high profile British side flying their own flag. If a Premier League side so actively steps up their efforts to fight discrimination, the elite environment will be a better one for minorities to thrive in. Whether that task is achievable is miserably unknown, but you can’t fault the efforts of a club who are clearly engaged with other aspects of the game.