9 December 2009 ~ With the draw out of the way, the build-up to the World Cup now begins in earnest. As is the case with any tournament involving England, questions will asked over how well-equipped the South African police are to handle the huge influx of potentially troublesome fans. Plans to bring in "state-of-the-art" water cannons and specially designed train carriages, equipped with their own holding cells and police stations, have already been mooted. Yet before subjecting the unsuspecting travelling fan to the full range of toys in the police's arsenal, I want to put forward the case for a more light handed approach to fan control by recounting a curious event that took place on a late night train.
Thanks to an inevitable combination of delays, disruptions and line closures, this one train was ferrying home large groups of Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest fans (returning from draws at Ipswich and Middlesbrough respectively). Presumably so as to cause minimal disruption to other passengers on the train the police decided to round up both sets of fans into the one carriage – my carriage. Blocked off at either end by a large yet nervous police presence, the two sets of shaven-headed, tattooed, hooded and, by this point, well-lubricated young men were crammed together inside the carriage. A scenario that would make even the toughest constable wake up in a cold sweat. Thankfully such fears proved to be ungrounded.
As the train set off, the chanting started. Yet there was something different about the songs. Instead of trying to antagonise their rivals, the fans seemed to be using them to reach out to one another. One wise-head piped up with a well-received rendition of "We hate Warnock, we hate Warnock" (in reference, of course, to the always popular Neil Warnock – a particular bête noire for both sets of fans). Further revulsion was directed towards fellow Championship rivals (Sheffield United, Derby County and Leicester City in particular), along with Leeds. Yet the fans were not just bonding over shared enemies. "There's only one Des Walker…" the chant began; a song dedicated to the centre-back who distinguished himself at both clubs during the 1990s and early 2000s. More chants followed, honouring other shared heroes such as Chris Bart-Williams, Brian Laws and Mark Crossley.
The police stood back in bewilderment at what was unfolding before them. The beers flowed and the carriage filled with the overpowering stench of men, yet while the songs continued to get louder and cruder the tension was decreasing all the time. Opposing fans started hugging one another, shared out their drinks and heaped praise upon their rival's star players. By this point it didn't matter whether the songs were directed at shared enemies/heroes or not – the two sets of fans just wanted to sing. Boisterous renditions of Hi-Ho Silver Lining were followed more emotive numbers such as You've Lost That Loving Feeling.
As the train pulled into Sheffield Central Station, some of the Wednesday fans seemed genuinely sorry to have to leave the carriage and break off their newly formed friendships. Escorted out by a now fairly relaxed police force, they noisily and affectionately bid their Forest counterparts farewell, wishing them luck for the upcoming Christmas fixtures. It is my hope that these will be the scenes that train passengers in South Africa will see this summer. Rather than making snap-judgements and falling prey to lazy stereotypes, let us hope that the police forces at the World Cup pause for just a minute before unleashing their latest "counter-hooligan" device. For, as my brief encounter demonstrates, against all presuppositions and within even the most unlikely of settings, there remains a set of common bonds, shared heroes, mutual enemies and a collective sense of humour that is capable of bringing football lovers of all persuasions together. After all, isn't that what the World Cup is supposed to be about? Matthew Hollow