Rumours of the death of hooliganism may have been exaggerated. Adam Powley sees signs that it is making a comeback – though not in the newspapers
Remember the Worthington Cup final? Neutrals and even committed spectators could be forgiven for failing to recall anything memorable from such a grim game, but there was one incident that stood out for those at Wembley that day.
Ten minutes into the first half a fight broke out in the tunnel end involving Spurs supporters who had obtained tickets for an area reserved for Leicester fans. The trouble soon spread to an entire block, with hundreds of spectators forced to take evasive action. Police and stewards waded in to separate fans, providing a sight all too familiar to those who watched football before the Nineties – lots of pointless aggression and the disconcerting sight of innocent fans caught up in the melee, including children, spilling on to the pitch.
The incident lasted several minutes, with the rest of the crowd distracted from events on the pitch. However, TV commentators all but ignored it, radio gave it just a brief mention while, judging by initial newspaper reports, it simply didn’t happen. The Wembley example is one of several that may suggest a worrying trend. Those that hype the game to the skies would have you believe hooliganism is a phenomenon consigned to history, but the truth is different.
Prior to the early Nineties, football hooliganism was one of the most reliable sources of news for the media. Many disturbances received widespread coverage, while the more serious incidents got the kind of exposure usually reserved for major international disasters. The contrast with the way such problems are reported today is marked. This season there have been plenty of incidents that, ordinarily, would have appealed to a newspaper journalist’s search for a good story, yet they have gone largely unreported.
The kind of disorder that typifies current hooliganism takes place well away from the ground. This season Chelsea and Manchester United fans on visits to Newcastle have been attacked in pubs. For their part, a group of Newcastle supporters drinking in a King’s Cross bar after their team’s match against West Ham were set upon by 200 Leicester fans who had arrived prior to the Worthington Cup final. Several fans were taken to hospital, but the incident barely registered with the press.
There has been repeated trouble between Spurs and Leeds fans amid the acrimony surrounding George Graham’s departure. Newspapers did report the attack on the Leeds team coach after the league match at White Hart Lane, but either missed or opted to ignore subsequent fighting in the FA Cup matches, both at Elland Road and White Hart Lane.
Outside the Premier League the problem is, if anything, worse. At Bristol City there have been several outbreaks of trouble involving the self-styled City Society Firm, notably at QPR at the start of the season, a particularly vicious encounter with Wolves at Ashton Gate and a near-riot at West Brom. The second half of this match in February was held up for 15 minutes after 150 visiting fans clashed with supporters in the home end. The trouble was exacerbated, City fans have claimed, by the exact measures that are supposed to make matches more welcoming and secure, namely the lack of police in the ground. Despite the evidence of CCTV cameras, only one arrest was made.
Such concerns over security were mirrored at Spotland in the game between Rochdale and Hull City where a pitch invasion by a tiny minority of the 2,500 travelling Hull fans received considerable media exposure. Craig Ellyard, editor of the Hull From The Terraces website, witnessed a different situation after the game, however.
“It was interesting that, although the pitch invasion received huge local publicity and some national attention, the after-match aggro, which was of an altogether more serious nature, was ignored. Police in riot gear fought running street battles with the City hooligans after the match, and some innocent fans were bitten by police dogs and baton whipped, yet there was not one mention of it in the local press.”
There is much more: a double dose of trouble between Manchester City and Millwall supporters; a disabled Chelsea fan attacked at Oxford by a man who was already in the process of being arrested; disturbances at Liverpool, Sunderland, Leeds, Bristol Rovers, Exeter, Barnsley.
In the abscence of balanced reporting, the peculiar mystique that surrounds hooliganism means many stories “improve” in the telling, but there is firm evidence to back up the growing perception that violence is on the increase. The National Football Intelligence Unit, with responsibility for monitoring hooligan activity, has not yet released its figures for the season, but their spokeswoman did identify a trend: “[Stadium] offences themselves are on the decrease. What we are seeing an increase in, though, is organised violence outside the football ground. The difficulty is identifying it: what is a pub brawl, what is actually football related?”
Wherever it takes place, violent disorder is clearly still a part of the English game. Yet there is little or no acknowledgement in the print media. The trouble at the Worthington Cup final saw 20 arrests, with 52 supporters treated for injuries. As the Metropolitan Police pointed out, not all were attributed to this single incident. Yet by any definition, this was an extraordinary affair. Even during the hooligans’ heyday, fighting within Wembley was a rarity, but here in 1999 was the spectacle of hundreds of panicking fans caught up in an old-fashioned set-to. Yet it was reported with barely a whisper of disapprobation.
Des Kelly is sports editor of the Mirror. While agreeing that the problem still exists, he refutes any accusation that the papers are not doing their job.
“I think if anything happens in the ground or in the vicinity then it’s presumed to be football-related violence, but it’s difficult for us to report on matters that happen in a pub two miles away from the ground. In the normal course of a weekend, you go to report on the football – that’s what you’re there for. Unless it’s thrust in everybody’s face in front of the press box, it’s unlikely to be reported.”
Those of a cynical disposition might wonder if there is hidden agenda here. The Football Task Force would appear to be among them. Despite their current claim that hooliganism is not part of their remit, back in October a spokesman was quoted in the Observer as saying: “There seems to be a deliberate effort from some quarters to pretend nothing is happening... People are trying to sweep the problem under the carpet, from the police to the politicians to the football authorities... I can only think it stems from the fact that the country is so desperate to get the 2006 World Cup.”
The fighting at Wembley took place in front of guest of honour and UEFA president Lennart Johansson, so it would hardly have done the World Cup bid any favours. Could it be that the press does not want to rock the boat and damage the bid’s chances by publicising crowd trouble? Kelly firmly rejects that charge.
“If you come out and say ‘yes, football hooliganism is on the increase’, you’re accused of sensationalising it, fanning the flames and making it worse. If we don’t report on it we’re seen as ignoring it... It would be great if the World Cup was here, but believe me, newspaper editors, and sports editors particularly, do not plan for 2006 and how many papers they’re going to sell. We’ve got the job security of a Premier League manager. It’s a nice conspiracy theory, but I’m afraid it doesn’t hold any water.”
Nonetheless, it is ironic that while self-appointed terrace celebrities like Paul Dodd (“England’s Number One Football Hooligan”) are rushing to commit their tales of thuggery to print, Kelly’s colleagues in the press box have gone comparatively quiet on the subject.
No one wants a return to the days when the news desks joined in the clamour to kick football when it was down, by way of lazy misrepresentation of the facts and common recourse to simple stereotyping. However, many supporters, particularly those who have witnessed trouble this season, will feel that the wider public should know more about the problems the game still faces.
From WSC 149 July 1999. What was happening this month