5 years ago, the word ‘ultra’ was regarded with the same negativity as it is now. People see violence on the news, particularly targeting these ultra groups abroad, and think to themselves that the word ‘Ultra’ is a loose term for fascism and violence. However, as with most things in life, there are often two sides to each story, and people will choose which side to see, and which side to ignore.
To look at the ultras scene blindly would be to see the violence and politics as a major problem, when realistically, it is only a problem at a very small percentage of ultra groups around the globe. To look at the scene positively and with an open mind, many people would discover that Ultra groups create noise, colour, passion, and have brought stadiums to life. This was, is, and always will be the aim of Ultras in the UK.
A glance around Europe and South America shows that such groups have been around for years, not only in the birthplace of the ultra fan, Italy, but now in the likes of France, Turkey, Spain, Holland, Brazil, Chile and Argentina. Tune into a game of Serie A or the Brazilian championship and we witness thousands of fans welded together in a colourful montage that has more resemblance of a festival, not a football match – a British football match that is! There hasn't been a sight like it in Britain since the shift to all-seater stadia.
"I believe it emanated from Channel 4's screening of Football Italia a few years ago," recalls Tom Hughes of the Jorvik Reds, York City's own all singing, atmosphere generating ultras. "Many people recount the scenes on the terraces as being far more interesting than the games themselves and far, far more eventful than the terraces here in England." The Jorvik Reds themselves were formed in 2004 after York City had lost their Football League status and attendances were suffering.
In an effort to boost the fading atmosphere the group organised flag days, in which fans were encouraged to bring handheld flags to games, and confetti and streamers, all in an effort to improve the atmosphere. Yet despite their success their relationship with the club is far from healthy. "We are often looked upon by them as being a pest," complains Hughes. "We paid for a new piece of apparatus to help maintain the club’s training ground to show our loyalty to the club. The response to this gift was less than enthusiastic."
The Jorvik Reds story is a common one, UK ultras struggling to form strong ties with their clubs. The mere mention of the word is often enough to put off clubs. The term itself is Latin and translated means radical, but today is usually defined as extreme or even violent. This coupled with a history entwined with hooliganism, politics and violence has made the label ultra one to fear.
The recent death of Lazio fan Gabriele Sandri and the subsequent violence around Italy was yet another chapter in the history of football hooliganism. Ultras may or may not have been responsible; however such is the link between them and hooliganism that in the world media it really didn't matter. "There will always be those who liken us to fascist hooligans," Hughes believes. "We have recently had an ultras banner banned by our own club because of this interpretation. It is not a great concern to us that we are likened to hooligans; it merely represents a general lack of understanding about a culture that is relatively new in this country." UK ultras are hoping to re-define the term to something that still means a passionate more than ordinary supporter but does not incorporate the violence traditionally associated with them.
Most of Britain's ultras are in their infancy. Newcastle’s Toon Ultras and Accrington Stanley’s Stanley Ultras were both formed post 2004, Aldershot'’s Red Blue Army and Celtic's Green Brigade were formed in 2007. There is one group, however, that go back long before the current surge; The Red Ultras, of Aberdeen FC. Formed back in 1999, the group now has an online shop, the rarity of a good relationship with the club, and can boast the UK’s largest permanent flag, The Red Army banner, which stretches the entire length of the Richard Donald Stand at the Pittodrie Stadium. "The stadiums were becoming soulless," remarks Stephen McCormick, founder of the Red Ultras. "I wanted to add as much colour as possible and try and bring back some of the passions that we used to have in the 70s and 80s".
McCormick and fellow UK ultras may be able to inject the colour and passion back into the grounds, but a look on the terraces in places such as Brazil, Germany and Italy and you witness one fundamental difference to top level UK grounds- the right to stand up. Since the tragedy of Hillsborough and the recommendations of the Taylor Report in 1989, the freedom to stand at top level football has disappeared. And while many fans are left to sit down at games, bringing that thrilling atmosphere witnessed overseas is an impossibility.
"The combination of all-seater stadia and heavy handed stewarding has done tremendous damage to the atmosphere inside our grounds," laments Christopher Nash, of the supporters group Stand Up Sit Down. "The contrast with countries such as Germany where supporters are free to stand is extraordinary." Launched in July 2004, Stand Up Sit Down has campaigned for fans to have the right to choose whether they stand or sit at football matches. "We do not want to see a return to the large, unsafe terraces of the seventies and eighties," comments Nash. "However, we believe that clubs in the top two divisions should be free to create small, modern areas of safe standing in grounds."
Whether such areas can be feasibly safe in larger grounds is open to debate, although foreign examples such as Borussia Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park show are a strong case in favour of standing areas. The stadium’s South Stand, the largest free-standing grandstand in Europe, holds 25,000 standing fans and can be converted into a seating area for an international in just two days. It seems with this in mind that creating a small area for standing fans in Premiership stadiums would be a distinct possibility. However, it appears that changing the current legislation would be a much bigger problem than the pragmatics of modifying a stadium.
Even with such setbacks and misrepresentation, this particular import looks set to continue to grow, with new ultra groups rising from all sides of the UK, resolute in restoring the atmosphere and match day buzz to the stands, and campaigning for fans’ rights in those stadia. And perhaps if more and more football organisations can recognise the significance these groups could have in shaping our viewing of football, then maybe one day we may see the grounds of the UK brimming with the ecstatic atmosphere the home of football should be showcasing to the world.