10 May ~ It's rare for York City's players to be described as "aces", let alone for them to merit a full page in the Sun. But pictures of our victorious play-off team were flashed across the world last week, showing our Wembley-bound squad attempting to take cover from missiles thrown by Luton Town fans. The reaction of both the media and the clubs involved says a lot about how football deals with "hooliganism" – and the hypocrisy involved.
A quick sketch of events. An efficient York win had just condemned "former League Cup winners Luton Town" to another season as "non-League Luton Town". While we celebrated a first shot at promotion since 1993, hundreds of home fans swarmed onto the field and approached the away end, attempting to storm past the small number of stewards acting as a barrier. Police reinforcements and liberal use of batons just about kept the Luton fans at bay, as surge after surge of supporters tried to push through to the York players – having already blocked off the tunnel to the changing rooms.
Eventually the Luton fans resorted to hurling missiles and loose change at the York fans while our players took cover among us. Eventually the squad was ushered out through the security room as several people (including top-scorer Richard Brodie) took a coin to the head. The battle between Luton fans and police then moved out onto the street behind the away end.
Having been in the middle of an event like this, it's hard to strike the right balance between strong condemnation and hysteria. This was a concerted effort by several hundred people to attack visiting supporters which culminated in football players being ushered out of an emergency exit, while being hit by missiles, rather than being allowed to celebrate the biggest achievement of their careers. Esther Rantzen, watching the match ahead of her election defeat in Luton South, might have wondered exactly what it was that made her "fall in love" with the town.
Was this a return to the "horrible days of the 1970s and 80s"? It's hard to draw a direct connection. Like many of those in the mob on the pitch, I wasn't even born when Heysel occurred or Millwall fans took over Kenilworth Road. Premier League football and largely all-seater stadiums are all we've known. Against this more sanitised background, the media response starts to make sense: Sky Sports News suddenly had a story to relay live on a quiet afternoon, outrage spread across Facebook and the papers could tie it into other disturbances across the Bank Holiday weekend to create a "football violence is back" story. The media fascination with hooliganism might not have caused thousands of young men to join their local firm but a picture of a bloodied football fan certainly gets readers. But historic comparisons should not distract from the rights and wrongs of last Monday.
Blanket media coverage might actually bring some positive results. Nick Owen, spokesman for Luton's owners, initially talked about the involvement of "one or two" fans who were "wound up" by York players celebrating on the pitch and this led to "fairly bitter verbal confrontations". Faced with overwhelming video coverage, the club eventually issued a full mea culpa. Meanwhile, the owners of a hardware shop raided by Luton fans (who, bizarrely, choose the humble mop as the best weapon to fight the police) were so angry at the response of the authorities that they have released their CCTV footage on YouTube in an attempt to force action.
Owen resisted the standard temptation to claim that those involved were not "real fans", an increasingly common rhetorical sidestep that allows clubs to avoid the responsibility of taking on the issue. Any football club will have racists, idiots and pugilists in their support base but Luton seem to have it worse than many; a number of those involved last Monday were chanting "E-D-L" while barricading in the York supporters' coaches. It certainly gives an added impetus to next week's play-off final – there's not much appetite amongst York fans for a return to Kenilworth Road next season. James Waterson