Aggro phobia

John Williams argues that the efforts of the police to keep hooliganism in the spotlight are masking the real progress that has been made combating violence

Notice the signs, recently, of a new football season approaching? Press stories complaining of too much TV football coverage; fierce debates on player wage hikes; Deloitte and Touche’s annual lecture on the booming financial power of the Premier League and how the market is good for football – but watch out for that nasty club overspend; and now, slotted nicely into the week leading up to the big kick-off, the Nat­ional Criminal Intelligence Service report on the arrest figures related to football. This, too, has become some­thing of an annual media event.

The numbers might change in the hooligan eq­ua­tion, but the NCIS message tends to remain pretty much the same each year: hooliganism may look like it is receding, but it is still a serious problem because hooligans are (delete as appropriate) more organised/ more crafty/ more violent/ more aware of CCTV/ more into the clever use of the internet and mobile phones/ more likely to pop up on the train or in your local pub or shopping centre. The big story this year was that 85 per cent of hooligan incidents occurred away from grounds – hardly a new story, this – and that football hooligans were actually now more like organised crim­inals, involved in fraud, extortion and drugs. At least this is more plausible than some of the recent panics, which have suggested that the real hooligans are more likely to come from the ranks of the suburban res­pectable – your local bank manager, for example.

Part of this ever-changing presentation, of course, is about the constant search for an angle, something for the world-weary media to get their teeth into. An­other “small change in hooligan figures” press release does nothing to ensure the necessary coverage for the important work of the NCIS in trying to limit hooliganism. The police themselves sometimes get caught up in this endless media spin. I spoke at a conference recently where a senior police officer complained bit­terly about the distorting coverage by the American Fox TV company, which was running exaggerated stories about the “military-style” organisation of Eng­land hooligans abroad. Preposterous. Almost cer­tain­ly, of course, the shaky basis of this story came originally from the British police.

An eight per cent increase in hooligan arrests in 1999-2000 might mean little, especially when set ag­ainst the huge decline in arrests and in the numbers of police used to cover matches since the mid-1980s. It might reflect simply the seasonal juggling of close rivals between divisions, for example. Or police determination to apply new laws – against racism, perhaps – more strongly. Dealing with hooligans in England over the past 15 years is actually something of a success story. This is especially true of the Prem­ier League, where even travel to some of the traditional danger spots of the Eighties is now relatively safe – if, some­times, a little dull. In the NCIS diary of serious in­cidents last season it tends to be the Burnleys, Stokes, Hull Citys and Cardiffs which are prominent, rather than the Chelseas and West Hams of old. This rather undercuts police claims, too, that wealthy clubs should do more to fund policing fans away from stadiums.

In this sort of context, press responses to the NCIS data and warnings, were rather interesting. The Guar­dian, for example, went strongly and uncomplicatedly for the police “hooligan increase” line, but the Daily Telegraph was, surprisingly, quite unconvinced by the NCIS gloom, claiming the police were fid­dling the figures by including offences which oc­curred away from matches, and pointing out that the enormous growth of technology and legislation against hooliganism might itself lead to more arrests. The Telegraph was also rather scathing of the new powers sought by police to prevent “suspected troublemakers” with no convictions from travelling to football matches even within Britain. Why introduce more stringent, across-the-board legislation when football hooliganism seems to be in long-term decline – even if not at every club? It also pointed out that drink-related disorder at football looks more like routine lads’ Saturday night rough stuff than any specifically football-induced car­nage. Perhaps NCIS, the newspaper asked cheekily, was looking to squeeze more cash out of government without any real justification? Surely not.

Tony Blair’s own approach to football included the calling of a Home Office study group under Lord Bas­sam last year to look in more depth (it said) at the prob­lem of football disorder. This body promised to study some of the underlying causes and pro­ducing a comprehensive package of proposals. I sat in on some of these meetings, which involved fans’ representatives, academics, practitioners, people from football and government – and Billy Bragg. A good start, a suitably Big Tent. But after a few early throat-clearing exchanges of views, a general election loomed and so game Home Office civil servants were swiftly in­structed to somehow turn these loose, often contradictory, unscripted exchanges into a tidy report with 54 (count ’em) recommendations. This strikes me as an incredible – and incredibly bad – way of making policy.

Given recent shifts, it might be a good idea to focus more attention now on some of the remaining real hooligan hot-spots. Something a little more imaginative than simply blanket policing might, eventually, move some of these reluctant venues and supporters into a more orderly future. This would take resources and time – but it is worth a shout.

No one in their right mind would claim that hooliganism at football has gone away. Not at matches of “problem” clubs, nor at some derby games and some key club fixtures, nor at England matches abroad. But it is also true that most fans at most clubs hardly ever even see hooliganism now. This might be because, as NCIS says, it now occurs away from matches.But credit is also due here to police, fans and clubs for doing a lot to unsettle some of the established links between fighting and watching football. How far have we come? Well, even the Daily Telegraph occasionally talks some sense on the matter. A long way, I’d say.

From WSC 176 October 2001. What was happening this month