Monday, 22 April 2013

Is football violence making a return?

This has been a question I’ve toyed with for a while now. We’ve seen several high profile incidents only in the last few weeks with Millwall at Wembley in their semi final FA cup fixture against Wigan and the day after Newcastle fans causing havoc in Newcastle city centre. I must stress these are often minorities and the vast majority of football fans are peace loving and will never cause any trouble at all. But does this signal a wider problem these few incidents? Clearly football is not immune to the outside pressures of society and during an economic downturn social tensions do rise to the surface as we have seen with the riots in 2011 and big strikes a few years back. There are certainly huge tension levels out there. A ghost walked over football's grave last weekend. As the nation prepared to bury the 80s with the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, stark reminders of the game's most wretched decade glared out from television screens and news pages. During Saturday's FA Cup semi-final Millwall fans fought among themselves at Wembley. After Newcastle United had lost 3-0 at home to Sunderland on Sunday some of their supporters tried to confront visiting fans at the railway station and pelted police with missiles, injuring three officers. By the violent standards of the 70s and 80s these incidents were relatively minor. Thirty or 40 years ago they would barely have merited a paragraph or two of news coverage. In football the stage had been reached at which stuff like this was a weekly routine. Thatcher was one of football’s worst enemies she despised football fans and classed all fans as hooligans which were grossly unfair. Things came to a head in March 1985 when Luton Town met Millwall at Kenilworth Road in an FA Cup quarter final and visiting supporters stage a prearranged riot. Having met up in London they travelled to Luton en masse and right on cue invaded the pitch, forcing the referee to take the teams off for 25 minutes while fans fought the outnumbered police. Nine days earlier the second leg of a League Cup semi-final between Chelsea and Sunderland at Stamford Bridge had also been disrupted by a pitch invasion which brought on mounted police. Ken Bates, the Chelsea chairman, complained about a lack of government action to curb the mayhem and given the limp responses of the Football Association he seemed to have a point. All the FA did in this instance was warning Chelsea about their future conduct. Luton was ordered to fence off their pitch and Millwall were fined £7,500, which was not much even then. Thatcher had an hour-long meeting with her ministers to discuss football violence and expressed her disappointment with the game authorities' apparent inability to face up to the problem. A meeting between government and football representatives at Downing Street failed to produce any new ideas. Thatcher saw football fans much like the working class as feral animals needing to be put in their place and dealt with firmly. There was no sense of trying to understand the tensions that her own government at the time created and field. The only, somewhat extreme, innovation was short-lived. Chelsea erected an 11ft electrified fence around their pitch hoping to deter invaders with a 12-volt charge, but the Greater London Council threatened legal action and the thing was not switched on. All this and worse was to come. On the last day of the season rubbish which for years had been allowed to accumulate under the main stand at Bradford City's ground caught fire and 56 died in the inferno. On the same afternoon Leeds United fans went on the rampage at Birmingham City and a boy was killed when a wall collapsed. Heysel was 18 days away. All they did was put up steel fences to keep spectators off the playing area and four years later the terrible logic of this practice led to Hillsborough when cackhanded policing at an FA Cup semi-final resulted in 96 Liverpool supporters, whose only offence had been to arrive early, being crushed to death behind one of the goals. The Taylor Report, all-seat stadiums, bans on alcohol and the fact that unruly elements have largely been priced out should have minimised the chance of football grounds again becoming death traps. Moreover, the speed with which Millwall and Newcastle have reacted in trying to track down those who caused trouble last weekend is a refreshing contrast to the foot-dragging responses of the past.Violence is not something football fans should have to accept and a firm stance on this by all clubs threatening life time bans on anyone found guilty is a must. We’ve come along way in the game to drive out violent elements I do hope we do not go back to those dark days.

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