Thursday, July 18, 2024

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Football troubles

Football crowd trouble

When West Ham and Millwall met in the League Cup on August 25th, the violence that erupted in and around Upton Park was like a reminder of a bygone era. In the modern game such incidents are few and far between, at least in the UK, where the reaction was unanimous in condemning those involved.

It wasn't all that long ago things were a lot different, at least with English football. The 1970's was a strange period for English football in general. Whilst the national team toiled and failed to reach both the 1974 and 1978 World Cup, the country's club sides eventually built up a contrasting dominance of the European Cup.


Whilst English clubs have reached the last 5 Champions League Finals, it still has nothing to compare with the incredible streak that started in the 1976-77 season. That term, Liverpool became the first English club and second British club (after Celtic) to claim the biggest honour in club football. This started a sequence that would see the European Cup stay on English soil for the next 6 seasons, until Hamburg won it in 1982-83.

Despite this success at club level, the image of football fans was somewhat more in keeping with the depressing nature of the national team and the economic downturn in Britain. Bins not being collected for weeks seemed to be reflected by the upturn in violence that occurred amongst rival fans on a Saturday afternoon. In short, football hooliganism was almost viewed as an extension of the wider problem with society.

These issues did not start in the 1970's of course, whenever there has been football there has always been some minority element who were there to find trouble. What the 1970's brought was an increasingly organised militia associated with many clubs, more often or not known as firms. Famous ones include the Headhunters of Chelsea and the Leeds Service Crew.

It was in the midst of this in 1973, that crowd segregation and fencing was introduced at some grounds. The frequency of football related violence was on the rise and as a result the sport had become something almost exclusively watched live by young males. The Thatcher government that dealt with the exacerbating problem, predictably reacted with promises of stiff measures, such as an ill-fated ID card scheme for all football fans.

It couldn't last though, English football was heading towards its public relations nadir. Of all the places to occur it was to be at yet another English club's European Cup final appearance, on 29th May 1985. The Heysel Disaster at the dilapidated Heysel Stadium in Brussels featured Liverpool and Juventus. The blame for the tragedy that claimed 39 lives was solely aimed at a section of Liverpool fans, who shortly before kick-off stampeded what were mostly Juventus fans in a neutral area of the ground.

This ended in the Juventus fans retreating to the end of the stand and putting pressure on the infrastructure, which resulted in the collapse of the wall on top of them. There were other mitigating circumstances which therefore contributed, but nothing that could excuse the actions of those involved. Uefa saw things the same way and handed out an indefinite ban to English clubs in European competition, which was eventually lifted for the 1990-91 season (except for Liverpool who served an extra year).

It is somewhat ironic then that after all of this, as well as the other odd death in English grounds, that the British government did not take greater action until after the Hillsborough Disaster in 1989
. This is down to the fact that the 96 eventual deaths were initially blamed upon other fans and their behaviour. This was in fact a horrible distortion of the truth, when the whole episode was really to do with poor organisation and leadership on the part of the Yorkshire police force that fateful day.

Nevertheless, legislation in the form of the Football Spectators Act (1989) swiftly followed and put in place measures that would start the process towards making visits to football grounds a lot safer. Fans now had to be properly identified in order to join a membership scheme for away matches, this was aimed at monitoring the spectator numbers and curtailing the risk of over-crowding.

Even more significant was the Taylor Report that came out in January 1990. The Lord Justice Taylor made strong recommendations with regards to stadium design and the requirements of crash barriers. Since it's release, nearly all newly built stadiums throughout the Premier and Football Leagues have been all-seater.

Even those stadiums that have still got terracing are significantly more safe than they were pre-Hillsborough, better policing and the Football Spectators Act have yielded results. The improvement in safety at football grounds has coincided with hooliganism being far less of an issue now than it ever was in the 1970's and 80's. The measures in safety obviously contribute to this, although in previous times the government's attitude had not helped either.

Far too often all football fans were tarred with the same hooligan brush and made out to be as guilty as each other. This was a ludicrous misconception that failed to deal with the root elements at hand, and reared it's ugly head with the infamous portrayal of Liverpool fans by the Sun newspaper after Hillsborough.

Some fans from that era will comment that football spectators in general were packed into terraces and treated as cattle, especially when remembering the high fences. It was almost as if society had fallen out of love with football and that anyone who went to see a match was asking for trouble. Once the politicians and authorities finally reacted, the cloud was lifted and within four years English football was enjoying it's renaissance under the Premiership banner.

Whilst football today is infinitely more hospitable, safer and financially better off, everywhere and not just in the UK, we have to accept that it has also slightly moved away from that entrenched sense of community. That's not to say that a return to the dark days of football hooliganism is something to ever accept, but like the terraces it harks back to a time when football was purer and followed by fans who felt strongly affiliated with their club.

Ideally we would have that sense of strong camaraderie that is associated with travelling to a football match with your mates at 3 o'clock on a Saturday, and in fairness you still can all over the country. The difference now is that football's saviour is also it’s dictator, fixtures can be re-arranged at short notice in order to please the TV schedule.

That aside football is in pretty good health, and I suppose it is a bit much to want it all without some compromise. The clashes that occurred between West Ham and Millwall are thankfully a real rarity in the modern era, and when you look at the fixture it was not a massive surprise. I certainly don't ever foresee a return of such incidents to the mainstream.

But if that's really your idea of going to watch the football, then you're probably best left with films in the ilk of The Football Factory or The Firm. Fascinating stuff but I'd rather watch the game and get my programme. Whereas you could always stay at home and get some sort of fix without threatening the rest of us.

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