Football conspiracy theories: Are we in a ‘golden age’ of fan paranoia?

Football conspiracy theories: Are we in a ‘golden age’ of fan paranoia?

  22 Dec 2023

One of the most eye-catching bios on X, or Twitter as we all know it, belonged to a sports writer with one of the UK’s biggest national newspapers. It was plain and simple and boiled down to five words: “Biased against your football club.”

Which is true. If you’ve followed football for any length of time, then you know that every arm of the media is out to get the club you support. You should see The Athletic’s morning meetings where we plot against the teams we most want to stitch up (all of them, obviously). Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean we aren’t trying to get Mikel Arteta banned from the touchline. Or perpetuating bias in favour of London. Or scheming for more points deductions at Everton. It’s All the President’s Men meets 24.

Truthfully, more attention is paid to the subsidised croissants, but let’s not allow the truth to spoil the fun. Conspiracy theories are everywhere in football and why wouldn’t they be? This is an environment with the right climate to make conspiracies thrive: tribalism, partisan attitudes, anger and mistrust. They are not merely for supporters either. Players and ex-players are on the bandwagon, some in ways which are not altogether comical or healthy. Rickie Lambert on climate change, Matt Le Tissier on Covid-19; like the first time Arnold Schwarzenegger told anyone he was giving up Skynet and entering politics.

But admit it. If you follow a certain club, from time to time you’ve been seduced by the suspicion that something or someone is deliberately hindering it. And those suspicions are clearly founded in fact. They’re all true. Even those that entirely contradict each other.

For example, and as a starter for 10, this comment from a Chelsea message board last year: “Can this guy not referee another Chelsea match again? Too many times at this point.” We’re onto Anthony Taylor here and referees are a good place to kick off because even journalists are not as rampant in their favouritism as match officials. Leeds United, the club I write about, have several referees pinned to their dartboard: Ray Tinkler, Michel Kitabdjian, Christos Michas. Has any team ever had it so bad? Michas, who handled (questionably) Leeds’ 1973 European Cup Winners’ Cup defeat to AC Milan, was banned from refereeing any future UEFA games amid allegations of corruption. Which makes you think.

Taylor, evidently, has been doing Chelsea over and we can’t be having that. But he’s a busy man because at other intervals, he’s mugging off Manchester City (perhaps why City and Chelsea drew 4-4 in November; the impossible decision of who to nobble). And Everton, too, apparently. Which begs the question — if Taylor is biased against everyone, isn’t he actually 100 per cent fair? But naturally, none of this is down to Taylor having off days or being a Select Group official with flaws. It’s because, as everyone knows, he has Manchester United bed sheets. Get onto the Blue Moon forum and all becomes clear — that is, until Dzeko’s Right Boot puts a spoke in the wheel: “Right, so: the United-supporting ref was trying to make Liverpool win?” Fair point. Someone else backs him up by daring to say it might be a dull matter of incompetence. Don’t let that stop you.

Antony Taylor – may or may not have it in for your club (Rich Linley – CameraSport via Getty Images)

What do the numbers actually say about Taylor, though? Since the start of the 2020-21 season, City have won six of 15 games officiated by him and lost five; a mixed record for such a dominant team, admittedly, but not a smoking gun. Chelsea have lost one of 13 matches. Scandal. Manchester United have four wins in 14, primarily because they are not very good. And Liverpool? Sixteen games with Taylor in the middle, one defeat and in amongst it all, a 5-0 rout of Manchester United at Old Trafford. Presumably a good way of Taylor throwing a shroud over his loyalties. As for Everton, it is going some to describe their crises as everyone else’s fault, even if the Premier League blatantly had it in for them on the financial fair play front.

We could go round and round with referees all day. In Spain, supporters of the smaller clubs think the 50-50s invariably go the way of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Scotland has long been regarded as Glasgow-centric, where everything favours the Old Firm and the Old Firm think everything favours each other. Rangers have not conceded a penalty for more than 70 league games running. Celtic are taking that statistic well. Their chief executive, Peter Lawwell, said at their recent AGM that the last time a penalty was awarded against Rangers, “John Greig handled the ball”. Greig’s distinguished career at Ibrox finished in 1978, not long after the end of Celtic’s first nine-in-a-row. They’ve both been feeding on scraps of success ever since.

At Liverpool, there’s niggling discomfort about the 12.30pm Saturday kick-off — the cross they have to bear so often after international breaks. Here is the Premier League’s way of purposely handicapping them when their players are jet-lagged and leggy because in the corridors of power at the Premier League, they would rather someone else won the title. But then the Premier League hate Newcastle United, as shown by the delay in allowing Newcastle’s Saudi takeover to go through. Though not as much as City, which is why City are facing all of those charges.

Meanwhile, VAR = blatant cheating, which has only given conspiracy theories more oxygen. A study done after the 2018 World Cup found a surge in theories related to VAR calls made during that tournament, particularly after African nations were eliminated. One of its conclusions was that the belief in conspiracies appeared to be encouraged by perceived threats to the poster’s identity. And therein lies the rub.

Karen Douglas is a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent. Presently, she is also the director of a project, funded by the European Research Council, which is looking into the rise and effects of conspiracy theories; why they develop, why they persist, when and how they tend to be influential. Football, she says, is prone to conspiracies because of its tribal “group-against-group type of feeling” and the strong emotional investment it encourages. The irony is that within football, no strain of bias is more pronounced than that held by supporters themselves. And it has to be said that football discourse has never been more furious either.

Down in the EFL, “the Football League’s corrupt” is a familiar chant at Elland Road, partly because of what happened in 2007 when Leeds became insolvent and were, to the bemusement of many, sold back by administrators to the people who had taken them into insolvency in the first place. A 15-point deduction ensued. Round here you will find people who genuinely think that referees, the authorities, absolutely everyone, will do anything to stop Leeds escaping the EFL because the club are a meaty cash cow at this level, not least for TV rights contracts. They drive the sort of audience figures most EFL sides cannot, hence why Sky Sports are forever disrupting their schedule. But that’s another story.

As a rule, the pettier or more obscure the conspiracies the better. The BBC can’t be arsed with Crystal Palace, which is why Palace get dumped in Match of the Day’s graveyard slot time and again. Dull, boring, get in the bin after 30 seconds.

Palace fans are sick of staying up late for the last few minutes of Match of the Day (Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)

Palace, over the years, have also felt like a lab rat when it comes to new rules or changes of circumstances. The 1990-91 season is the only time Palace finished in the top flight’s top three. A month before it finished, UEFA decided to re-admit Liverpool to European competitions after their post-Heysel ban, meaning no European adventure at Palace. UEFA is brave enough to do that to a club like them. No one cares. But Arsenal in the same position? Or Chelsea? Certainly not. Then came 1995 when the Premier League reduced its numbers from 22 clubs to 20. Palace finished fourth bottom and went down; at least saving Match of the Day from going through the motions.

Joking aside, what is it about football that generates grievances that then become full-blown conspiracies? What is it about the sport that takes inevitable kicks in the teeth and turns them into a bigger, dark-arts picture? Certain Tottenham supporters have it in their heads that whenever a negative, generic football story requires an image to go with it, editorial staff automatically use Spurs to depict it. Depressing stuff, so let’s go with Tottenham. Is that how it is? Or are people vocalising their own irrationality, often in response to underlying annoyance at the performance of their club?

“Research suggests that people are attracted to conspiracy theories when one or more of their psychological needs are frustrated,” Douglas says. “The first of these needs is epistemic, related to the need to know the truth and have clarity and certainty. The other needs are existential, related to the need to feel safe and have some control over things that are happening around us, and social, related to the need to maintain our self-esteem and feel positive about the groups we belong to. People might be attracted to conspiracy theories to try to satisfy these needs.

“This essentially means anyone can seek out conspiracy theories if they have psychological needs which are not being met at any particular time. It’s perhaps one explanation why we tend to see a lot of conspiracy theories when things happen like sudden deaths of celebrities or during pandemics. People are looking for ways to understand what’s going on and looking for ways to cope with difficult situations — worry, fear, social isolation. A simple explanation is also often not very appealing. People assume that a big event must also have a big or more sinister cause. (Conspiracy theories) can turn people away from mainstream politics and science, in favour of more radical ideas and actions.” Or away from the bland possibility that your team were to blame.

Certain conspiracy theories, experts say, can be founded on grains of facts or reality. Those facts then get exaggerated or distorted to the point where they get out of hand. Football, unfortunately, does not have a record of being squeaky clean or free from corruption and as such, it cannot always tell those who follow it that their paranoia is simply that. But there has rarely been a time when the simple explanation struggles more to make itself heard.

Take Leeds again. First, there was a gypsy curse, supposedly placed on Elland Road many decades ago. Then, during the Don Revie era of the 1960s and 70s, there were claims and counter-claims about bent refs, alleged bribes and a southern media who resented their success and tried to prevent it. On and on until last month when the FA Cup draw sent Leeds to Peterborough United, their 13th away tie in succession. The odds of that? Not far off 9,000 to one, or so my father — a mathematician by trade — tells me. But as someone put it to me the other day, there’s no conspiracy here. It’s just very, very Leeds.

(Top photos: Getty; Richard Sellers/Allstar, Shaun Botterill, Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA; design: John Bradford)

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