English football must not return to it’s hooligan history

(by Hugo Saye)

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana.

“If this is football, let it die.” – L’Equipe, 30th May 1985.

In the 70s and 80s European football scraped along the bottom of the moral valley, culminating in its nadir at Heysel Stadium on the 29th of May 1985. L’Equipe’s dismayed conclusion came the following morning, after a live television audience of over 100 million had witnessed 39 deaths and over 300 injuries in the minutes before the European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus, a game UEFA then unforgivably demanded went ahead. The French newspaper had initiated the European Cup, yet football had sunk so low that it was prepared to pull the plug on its own brainchild.

Fortunately the last few decades have seen football come a long way from the stinking morass it was dragged into by hooliganism and gang culture during those years. It is no longer “a slum game played in slum stadiums watched by slum people” as the Sunday Times deemed it just ten days before the Heysel tragedy; the problem has been solved and the nice, shiny product of modern football is a family-friendly affair.

“It was like a war zone.” – A Millwall fan speaking to the BBC, 25th August 2009.

Last night West Ham beat Millwall 3-1 after extra time in the Carling Cup, although the result is not really important. The match was surrounded by fighting between the two sets of fans that lasted for hours, including two incidents whereby riot police had to stop the game to remove fans from the pitch. There were hundreds of fans involved and hundreds more policemen as the Boleyn Ground was engulfed in punches, missiles and bloodied faces. Five arrests were made as one man was stabbed in the chest and another was hit in the head with a dart.

When it gives rise to nights such as this football is its own worst enemy. The passionate nature of the game can easily breed aggression, but hooliganism is something that cannot be excused or accepted. In recent years movies like Green Street and Football Factory have given this behaviour a veneer of glamour that has brought with it a form of social acceptability. Faced with such broadcasting younger fans, who were not on the terraces of the 80s, develop a detachment from the reality of hooliganism and it becomes exciting and fun. Similarly, many older fans who were there become nostalgic for the days before the sanitisation of the game.

But a return to those days is the worst thing that could possibly happen to football. Innocent people were injured and killed, English club teams were banned from European competition. There were threats to ban the England national side from international competitions unless fan behaviour could be curbed. Anyone genuinely interested in football as a sport and not as a vehicle for violence will see that fighting can only bring negatives. What is really scary is that now the game has cleaned up its act children are commonplace in the stands. I don’t imagine “exciting” would be the description given by anyone who had treated their young son or daughter to a cup tie at Upton Park last night.

Over the last fifteen years English football has gone from the feared outcast to the example for the rest of Europe. As stabbings and violence have continued around southern and eastern regions of the continent, we have been able to look at ourselves with pride, pointing to the way in which we cleaned up our fans and stadiums in the wake of Heysel and Hillsborough. The occasional drunken scuffle may be inevitable, but at least riot police are no longer a fixture of the average League weekend. Our new position as one of the safest sporting communities around is one that we simply cannot allow to be relinquished.

The only positive from last night is the FA’s hardline response, insisting that all those involved have no place in football and will be banned for life. It is impossible for the authorities to over-react; this behaviour cannot be allowed to take root again and both the clubs and fans involved must be punished. For once the FA has to act swiftly and firmly, stamping out the threat of hooliganism before it can return to our game. It may be naive to think that violence had been entirely removed from football but scenes like last night’s had been condemned to the past. The FA must act to ensure they stay there.