The papers were pleased by the trouble at West Ham v Millwall – it gave them a reason to get angry

“We hoped it had disappeared forever but deep down we knew it was still out there festering, simmering.” Unfortunately Ken Dyer of London’s Evening Standard was not speaking about the hypocritical moralising of the great British newspapers, but rather the shocking, photogenic and highly lucrative stories about football hooliganism in the wake of the violence at West Ham v Millwall. “Today, when the blood is washed from the pavements of east London and the ripped seats, coins and debris are cleared from the pitch, questions will be asked,” mused Dyer evocatively. Perhaps, prior to writing about the “violence we prayed had left our game for good”, he ought to have questioned his paper’s marketing team’s use of billboards plastered with the gaudy advertisement: Football riots – all the pictures inside.

The Standard’s reaction to the story was far from unique. The tabloids grasped the news of violence at Upton Park with a gleeful relish not witnessed since the death of Michael Jackson. The bombastic headlines and picture spreads all said the same thing: please buy me. The Daily Mail were more outraged, shocked and saddened than most. It was like a horror movie noted Martin Samuel, who had to walk through “human debris” on his way home. The Express alternately blasted the collisions the Night of Shame and The Dark Ages. The Mirror opted for the curt headline Cup Riot on their front page, leaving enough space for a picture of a bleeding fan. They saved the more sophisticated Battle of the Boleyn header for their back pages.

Never likely to miss an occasion, the Sun had “exclusive” reaction from their columnist Harry Redknapp. A mournful looking Harry was advertised on front and back pages, his mugshot seemingly photoshopped to suit the sombre mood. Redknapp made the pertinent point that this could be a one-off, given the nature of the clubs’ rivalry. Furthermore, Harry had thought that hooliganism was a thing of the past, but now suggests the events at Upton Park should remind us not to take anything for granted. It’s a pity the paper paying Harry’s wages didn’t take his moderated approach onboard. His column was flanked by stories headed It was worse than the Seventies and Thugs are returning to drag soccer back into the gutter. 

Harry’s restraint was not to be found in the Daily Mail. The “terrifying resurgence in football violence” was the fault of the internet, Hollywood, YouTube, the government or the recession, depending on which part of the paper you read. The Mail’s football columnist Jeff Powell was so excited, sorry aghast, that his rant came out like a poor man’s Shakespeare. Blaming the violence on anything and everything in a piece entitled Cage these vile beasts, Powell declared: “Cometh the credit crunch, returneth the lout from his bolt hole.” Cometh the chance to sell papers, returneth the vile pronouncements of raging commentators, more like.

From WSC 272 October 2009

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