Even though it has never done any harm. Hard to imagine that it could!
Is the right to bear celery a civil liberties issue? It certainly wasn't what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they drafted the US constitution. However, this week's news that Chelsea Football Club has banned celery from Stamford Bridge has pushed this humble vegetable to the forefront of the civil rights agenda. To paraphrase Voltaire: I don't like to eat celery, but I'll defend to the death your right to throw it.
Celery throwing, in case you weren't aware, is a slightly surreal Chelsea tradition that dates back to the 1980s. The vegetable throwing is an accompaniment to the famous `Celery song', a paean to the erotic properties of the humble apium graveolens dulce: `Celery, celery, if she don't come, I'll tickle her bum, with a lump of celery'.
Until this week the origins of the chant were a mystery to me. However, after trawling football websites, I came across the theory that the chant is based on a Chas and Dave recording of a traditional cockney singalong called `Ask Old Brown To Tea'. Not being particularly familiar with the Chas and Dave canon, I consulted my friend Ed, a self-confessed aficionado of the London pub rockers. He confirmed that the Chas and Dave connection was correct. The original lyric was, `Ask Old Brown to tea, and his family, if he don't come, I'll tickle his bum, with a lump-a celery'. Chas and Dave recorded a version on an old Christmas album, which then became a hit among travelling Chelsea fans on a tour of Sweden in 1981, and a tradition was born.
However, the football authorities haven't always taken kindly to celery throwing. In 1996, Gillingham FC banned celery from the Priestfield stadium after a goalkeeper complained that he had been struck by the vegetable. In 2002, four Chelsea fans were prosecuted and fined for `throwing celery without lawful authority' during the FA Cup semi-final against Fulham. The latest clampdown on celery throwing came after the Carling Cup Final, when Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas was showered with celery as he went to take a corner. Fabregas wasn't injured by the flying vegetables. In fact, the young midfielder, who is probably used to an entirely different calibre of makeshift missile in his native Spain, looked rather bewildered.
Although nobody was hurt, the FA has launched an investigation into this and another celery-throwing incident involving Chelsea fans and the club has decided to make Stamford Bridge a celery-free zone. `The throwing of anything at a football match, including celery, is a criminal offence for which you can be arrested and end up with a criminal record', said a statement on the club's website. `In future, if anyone is found attempting to bring celery into Stamford Bridge they could be refused entry and anyone caught throwing celery will face a ban.'
As I've argued before on spiked, a policy of banning specific objects that might be used as missiles will always be subverted by human ingenuity (1). If celery is banned, then fans will simply throw coins, cigarette lighters, or mobile phones instead. In 2002, a linesman was struck by a half-eaten meat pie at Millwall's New Den. Is a bunch of celery more hazardous than a meat pie? How many people, I wonder, have been injured by celery at a football match? According to Home Office figures there were 78 arrests for missile throwing in the 2005/6 season, only 16 of which were at Premiership matches (2). The fact that only seven Chelsea fans were arrested for throwing missiles in all competitions last season doesn't suggest a particularly widespread problem. Moreover, it is not possible to tell from the statistics whether these arrests were for chucking celery or more bog standard projectiles such as coins or plastic bottles.
The police may, of course, have been taking a softly-softly approach to celery throwing, so I contacted the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) to find out whether flying celery is a health hazard. `I don't think we can find any instances of people struck by vegetables at sporting fixtures,' Roger Vincent from the RoSPA press office told me. Vincent thought that, while throwing bunches of celery might be dangerous, there wasn't anything wrong with fans waving the vegetable. (Perhaps Chelsea fans should follow the lead of the campaign for safe standing and start a `safe celery' campaign.)
Next I tried the Football Licensing Authority (FLA), which was set up after the Hillsborough disaster to oversee stadium safety. According to the FLA website, the rate of fan injuries at football matches in the 2005/6 season was one injury per 32,449 spectators, of which 65 required hospital treatment (3). Two thirds of these injuries resulted from trips, falls or contact with turnstiles, while half of the remaining injuries were scalds from hot drinks. What about flying vegetables then? I rang the FLA to find out. `There is nothing on record to say anyone's been injured by a vegetable,' said Nikki Rutherford who compiles the FLA injury statistics. `We did have one person choking on a meat pie but that was about all,' she added. So, there you have it, the half-time catering is far more hazardous to spectators than flying celery.
Chelsea might be despised for their new-found wealth and success but celery throwing remains one of their more endearing traits. The spectacle of thousands of Chelsea fans singing their lewd ditty and hurling celery is guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of most football fans, regardless of club allegiance. However, the football authorities evidently fail to see the funny side. Celery is now salata non grata at Stamford Bridge. Worse still, the club is urging supporters to ring a special hotline and inform on anyone seen throwing celery inside the stadium. A celery hotline, for Christ's sake! George Orwell himself couldn't have made it up.
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