To say the past three weeks have been a whirlwind for 32-year-old John Meighan would be an understatement. The property manager and Tottenham Hotspur fan woke up after the London Bridge attack – just days after the Manchester bombing – and felt an overwhelming sense of emotion and helplessness.
“The turning point for a lot of people was the Manchester bombing and the fact that children got killed. And then with the London Bridge attack coming so close after, as a Londoner I really felt strongly that something needed to be done,” the father-of-three explains.
Shy Society caught up with John, the founder of Football Lads Alliance (FLA), to get the lowdown on his brand new movement which saw up to 10,000 men, women and children bring central London to a standstill on Saturday during their inaugural ‘United Against Extremism’ march.
So tell us about your movement John?
Initially the aim of the group was to get people onboard and to try and drum up some support. Then it’s grown to ‘let’s get thousands of people onboard’ and then it went to ‘let’s get tens of thousands of people onboard’ and grow it to a movement where we’re going to bring London to a bit of a standstill and disrupt day-to-day life. Not in a violent or aggressive way – in a manner that says ‘well we’re here, we need to be heard. There are a lot of people here so you need to take note. It’s costing you a lot of money to police this so you need to listen to people and act’.
Football fans are usually given a hard time so this is about bringing different fans together and showing that rivals can be stronger together and then that overall message that something needs to be done basically.
Longer term, it’s looking at terror laws and preachers of hate. We’ve all seen it in the press that they’ve got thousands of people on watchlists but the reality is you can’t watch them all so you need to look at somehow putting a framework in place to monitor what they do. Be that electronic tags, be that some form of confinement – I don’t think we as a country should be afraid to deal with radical extremism. We’re not focusing on religion now; we’re talking about radical Islamic extremism – that’s what these people that carried out the five attacks – Lee Rigby, 7/7, Westminster Bridge, London Bridge and the Manchester bombing – were doing it for.
It feels to me that we haven’t learnt a lot of lessons and there’s almost this acceptance that this is okay – we’re just too soft.
What makes the FLA different to other groups of this nature?
We’ve gone with our instinct and with our own thing. We’ve said we didn’t want flags, chanting, drinking on the streets – the typical things that have probably hindered the groups that have run before because unfortunately it gives the Press a stick to beat you with. And it’s not right in the sense that you should be able to fly the Union Flag and the St George’s Cross but when you’ve got guys that are drunk and acting loutish then it’s a carbon copy of something that’s already been.
So that was our thinking behind that and it has taken serious resistance from people – people saying ‘it’s patriotic not racist’ to fly these flags – and of course they are completely right! But our argument is that it’s about bringing football fans together and that in itself will be a message too hard to ignore.
Can you believe just how quickly it has taken off?
When we got to Cannon Street Station on Saturday and it’s almost on a bit of a slope and you could just see a sea of people – it was unbelievable – it was just all the way back. We were going past shops and building sites and people were just standing there in shock – I was in a bit of disbelief myself really that 1.) So many people turned up and 2.) That it all went exactly to plan. We laid down wreaths on London Bridge where the vigil is, had a minute silence for the victims which was really well respected and then had a minute of applause for the police to say thanks for how good they were. I’ve had some really good feedback from them since and that, considering the numbers, it went very well.
I’m feeling a lot of positive energy at the moment. The adrenaline is still pumping and I’ve had people who I don’t even know ringing me up and saying ‘thanks for doing this’. It has really captured people’s imagination – we’ve got 40,000* members on our private Facebook group and that has grown by 10,000 in the past 24-48 hours.
What’s your biggest fear?
I’m a family man with a good job and of course you worry when you are thrust into the limelight like this. In terms of the organisation itself my biggest fear is counter-groups – without a doubt. I’ve been in touch with some left-wing and far-right groups already to pretty much tell them ‘you’re not welcome, please stay away’ – so that’s one of our plans to actually interact with them proactively and be quite explicit. A bit like the whole no flags idea, it’s a bit different and off-cue – not what everybody is used to. If you get good press you’ve won half the battle and that’s what we’re looking to do.
So what is next for the group?
We’ll be launching a new website fairly soon and although we are keeping the name for now, I might look at slightly rebranding the group as we expand to something like Football Lads Alliance in association with Football Family Alliance because I’m really keen to broaden this out and make it more appealing to everyone, not just the male population.
We probably need to create a mass movement here – of 50-100,000 people – and yes it might be a drain on police resources but we have to make the politicians sit up and listen now.
Moving forward I’ll be trying to get some big names onboard – we’ve already got SAS legend Phil Campion onboard and someone like the boxer Tony Bellew would be great too. I’ve had contact with Danish and Dutch Press and I think there’s a bit of interest in Europe as well – further down the line one of my ambitions is to bring together European football clubs and maybe march as one if possible. While it’s still a pipedream at the moment that would probably raise it more of a global problem because ultimately this is very much an issue in mainland Europe as well as in Britain. I think collectively the more people you get onboard the more of a voice you have.
And lastly, what would you say to people interested in joining you on the streets but still a little apprehensive about doing so?
Don’t be afraid to come – our motto is ‘no racism, no violence: together we’re stronger’ so it doesn’t matter who you are or what walk of life you’re from, if you’re willing to walk with people who want change and want an end to extremist terrorism on our streets then please come.
We’ve got a date booked in for the 7th October and we think it’s going to be London again – a lot of people want us to go north but we feel we need to probably stamp our identity on London first before we go elsewhere.
Thanks John! As they say: watch this space…
*correct at time of writing
Standing up for those without a voice in Britain