By Richard French
Each season sports news channels and radio stations will inevitably report that violence has occurred up and down England. While it is not as frequent or widespread as the dark days of the seventies and eighties, there is still a problem with the ugly side of the beautiful game.
The main perpetrators of these unsavoury acts seem to come from the likely groups. Millwall, Cardiff City, West Ham United and Leeds United have all been involved in various outbreaks up and down Britain fairly recently. The question is, how do we stop it?
The answer is a little more complicated, with many sociologists and experts having given opinions on the matter over the course of the last three decades. There has been huge success in tackling it issue in that time, but we as a country are in danger of congratulating ourselves too much and ignoring that there is still work to be done to make football a truly universal game.
Last week there was a stabbing in White City, London, when Millwall took on Queens Park Rangers in a Championship fixture. Once again it was Millwall’s fans who were involved in an incident, another example of their hardcore sections of support after violence at West Ham and Hull City last season.
The south-east London club has a fierce reputation for hooliganism, dating back many years. They have been glorified in numerous films in the last decade including The Football Factory, Rise of a Foot Soldier and Green Street, meaning there has been an increased interest in the actions of these groups of men who see fit to kick lumps out of each other every Saturday.
It is not just Millwall. West Ham, Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and Stoke City were also featured in the films which brought the modern day football rough and tumble into the homes of the unsuspecting public. Just as war films can portray a different reality to those of us sitting at home, these hooligan films almost trivialise what is actually quite a traumatic experience for those who get caught up in the trouble.
The gentrification of football in recent years has meant that the core supporters, or rather the working classes, have been driven away from attending matches. The installation of seating and higher prices means that the clientele at football has changed beyond recognition.
However, the pricing out of hooligans doesn’t always work. Some fans will own their own businesses or have relatively well paid jobs, meaning that £30 for a ticket is not a deterrent. CCTV has worked well but Stone Island hoodies and baseball caps cover up faces when needs be.
Problems arise when, like last Tuesday for example, two London sides meet in midweek. It means large numbers can travel to a local rival and they have had time to drink alcohol before the game.
The current measures have worked as much as they can, often driving away the troublesome and forcing the rest to learn how to behave in a manner which society recognises as acceptable.
Those who are often referred to as ‘Ultras’ in Europe, essentially lunatics who are looking for trouble, will always be associated with football and unless we penalise them even more heavily we will continue to hear reports of innocent men with stab wounds.
Interestingly, ‘Ultras’ in Italy are often not necessarily looking for violence. It is more of a social ‘family’ which requires one to sport the colours of their club at all times. The Ultra groups actually have power within the club and sometimes hold positions on the club board. This is wildly different from the ‘Firms’ over here which couldn’t be more separate from the football club.
The answer is essentially relatively simple. For widespread violence on a matchday, the club should be docked three points (effectively meaning the fans have lost the game for the team). For pockets of violence the club should have to play their next home game behind closed doors (meaning they miss out on important revenue).
To some this approach might seem harsh, though if the fans are having a directly negative effect on the club’s fortunes, they might well cease their idiotic behaviour. If they do not, they will soon end up watching the club play at non-league level, or simply rotting in mediocrity in the bowels of English football.
The banning orders, restriction of movement and criminal charges have worked to a large extent, though this would be the final step in getting the idiots away from football. With a high profile campaign we would be allowing the next generation to go to matches without the fear of seeing their father stabbed or beaten, something which is only healthy for the long term future of the game.
There must be a real push from all true fans to kick out these elements whilst still holding onto the intense rivalries which makes the game so unique. Without the electricity of a hostile atmosphere, we might as well stop playing.
The clashes between Liverpool and Everton and Arsenal and Spurs are highlights of the season, and we must be very careful that ridding the game of Ultras does not mean we rid it of passion.