Wednesday, 23 February 2011

‘An ugly scene’ – Is the spectre of hooliganism creeping back into the beautiful game?

Football hooliganism is by no means a modern phenomenon; indeed since the dark days of the 1970s, when fights and football went hand-in-hand, and the tragic era of the 1980s, when a combination of inadequate stadia, ill-behaved supporters and a policing strategy geared towards ‘containment’ rather than safety combined to result in successive disasters, it has lurked uneasily beneath the surface. Naturally with the advent of substantial television revenues and the subsequent explosion in ticket prices, which has transformed this ‘working man’s sport’ into a penchant for the privileged, the more notorious ‘hooligan element’ has been mostly priced out. Yet as Millwall displayed at the weekend, despite having safe, all-seater stadia and astronomical ticket prices, coupled with the gentrification of football in the past twenty years, the potential for trouble remains. The spectre of Millwall supporters hurling coins and bottles at the visiting Middlesbrough players brought memories of the 1980s vividly back to life.

Whilst the majority of fans would naturally abhor such displays of violence and flagrant disrespect for the ‘rules of engagement’ most supporters adhere to, it is nevertheless a situation which the authorities ought to be monitoring. One might justifiably say that clubs such as Millwall are the exception, having more or less constantly been associated with hooliganism over the past 40 years, and likewise Cardiff City and West Ham United, both of whom have tainted pasts and presents in that regard. Yet it is the clubs which, for one reason or another, appear to be falling into the trap, devoid of the sort of reputation which sets Millwall apart from the Football League pack, whom we ought to be worrying about. For instance the club I support, Queens Park Rangers, has recently accrued a number of negative headlines and a not insignificant number of column inches relating to clashes with visiting fans in and around the Loftus Road area. Indeed the number of police officers and riot vans patrolling the stadium during last night’s visit of Ipswich Town, themselves not a club widely associated with hooliganism, was a worrying portent as to the direction which this, as it prefers to be publicised, ‘family club’ may be heading.

It may be pertinent at this point to remind ourselves of just how far football has come in the past two decades, particularly in this country. The 1980s saw football played in out-dated, often dilapidated grounds entirely unfit for their advertised capacities. Fans were penned in, often uncomfortably and, tragically, fatally at Hillsborough in 1989. Back then these problems were easily disguised and offset by the headline-making actions of a few mindless ‘supporters’ for whom the football was a sideshow, and fights with opposing fans were their raison d’etre. The fact that just purpose-built ground, Glanford Park in Scunthorpe, emerged from 1955 until 1988, whilst millions of pounds were spent on policing and hundreds of fences erected around football grounds is an indictment of the manner in which hooliganism for far too long covered up football’s ills. Yet this is not the situation nowadays. Since the Taylor Report in 1990 recommended the introduction of all-seater stadiums across the United Kingdom, many of these such grounds have come into existence. Stadiums such as The Riverside in Middlesbrough, The Ricoh Arena in Coventry and Pride Park in Derby stand as testatement to a sea change in attitudes towards safety and investment in football.

Yet what this also means is that supporters and supporters’ groups can no longer hide behind the banner of unsafe stadia and unfair policing priorities to cover up the lawless actions of a minority. Football cannot and it mustn’t return to the 1970s and 1980s, and nor do I believe it could. The demographic of a typical fan-base for even a Championship or League One club nowadays is so vastly different and has grown up or at least become accustomed to an entirely different footballing universe than its predecessor. Yet we must condemn the few and their attempts to bring football back into the dark ages. By no means do I wish to claim that modern football is a perfect, flawless game for that would be a fallacy that I could not endorse. Yet it would be a shame to see all the hard work described above go to waste, and let incidents such as those at Millwall and West Ham in recent memory, pass by without acting to punish the perpetrators, and send a clear warning to that, and indeed any club, which feels it can ‘gloss over’ the actions of its supporters.

Photos courtesy of (in order): Sporting Life, The Telegraph, Who Ate All The Pies?

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