Wednesday 24 September ~
We're halfway through the League Cup third-round fixtures. With Blackburn v Everton, Ipswich v Wigan and Newcastle v Tottenham awaiting us tonight this week's ties have already generated a surprising amount of tension. The most obvious example, and one played out in the media, was at Sunderland. After a fortunate and undeserved penalty shootout win over struggling Northampton an angry Roy Keane described the night as the worst of his career. He claimed that both his players (“there are no positives to be taken from this”) but also the Sunderland fans (“booing everybody and abusing me”) were “poor”.
Of course this today led to angry reaction, followed by furious debate on Sunderland message boards. Comments that Roy Keane was a “disgrace” for attacking the fans were angrily rebutted with posts suggesting that the real guilty parties were those “who have been mouthing off to a man who has done more in two years with this football club than they will ever do with their pathetic lives”. The debate escalated with many attributing the previous night's atmosphere to the “different type of crowd” that is attracted by an early round League Cup game and the changing nature of modern fandom. Indeed, this sort of over the top reaction to a poor performance and some immediate post-match remarks by a frustrated manager is an enduring symptom of message board and phone-in culture. As everyone now has several means to express themselves, it is the fans with the most extreme opinions who will always be heard most often – any sort of disgruntlement is now amplified out of proportion. Most Sunderland fans were last night groaning quietly rather than adopting disgraced online personas. But as Keane himself said last night “you always end up remembering the idiots”.
A completely different type of fan tension was seen after the game between Swansea and Cardiff at the Liberty stadium. In an exciting tie, Spaniard Jordi Gomez won the first match between the clubs in nine years for the home side with a 57th-minute free-kick. Afterwards, however, hundreds of Swansea fans fought with police. Speaking on the radio in the aftermath of the game, Lord Kinnock described himself as “outraged”, while South Wales Police assistant chief constable Robert Evans praised the majority of supporters and the police, claiming: “Compared to fixtures in previous years, the trouble was limited and confined to a small area.” Whether this says more about the supporters’ behaviour and police professionalism or the scale of previous trouble at South Wales derbies is unknown.
One of tonight's fixtures is Aston Villa v QPR at Villa Park. Last time these clubs met was at this stage of the same competition in September 2004. It was at this match that due to a lack of proper policing, steward training and a number of safety mistakes that an Aston Villa steward died following fan trouble. So whatever the reported police success in dealing with the trouble in Wales last night really tells us, it has to be hoped this is proof that safety levels are higher than ever before – and that tension between supporters is kept to the message boards.