A worrying new trend

WHEN, after Cardiff City had beaten mighty Leeds United 2-1 at Ninian Park in the FA Cup, a huge mob of Cardiff fans invaded the pitch, tried to get at the Leeds fans at their end, and battled with police, there were horrified reactions. Two Leeds players spoke of fear for their physical safety. One was the big Australian striker, Mark Viduka, who said he knew that were he to have retaliated if struck, he might have been killed. While the England goalkeeper, Nigel Martyn, declared that he was afraid he might be blinded by the hail of missiles which descended upon him during the game.

It was generally agreed that matters were exacerbated by the self- serving and irresponsible actions of Sam Hammam, the Lebanese owner of the Nationwide second division club, in treating himself to a "lap of honour" round the pitch towards the end of the game and stationing himself behind the Leeds goal. Futile for the ebullient Sam to insist that he had always done as much when owner of Wimbledon. It is well known that the relatively few Dons fans who - however reluctantly - are obliged to follow their team to remote Selhurst Park are among the most passive in the land, despite the past reputation of their team for what might politely be called physical commitment.

Cardiff City bought by Sam after he had sold Wimbledon for a vertiginous 28 million to a group of credulous Norwegian businessmen, incurring thus the bitter enmity of Dons fans who had once adulated him, have been notorious for years for their hooligan fringe, the so called Soul group. Go as far back as 1974 and you find one of the most horrific brawls in hooligan history when Manchester United, then on their way out of the old second division, visited Ninian Park. Fans of visiting clubs tell alarming tales of the violence to which they are subjected when they visit Cardiff, and the Cardiff thugs have perpetrated various outrages when travelling; not least a couple of seasons ago Stoke when eventually several of them were gaoled.

And what was Sam's response to all this! Why, to issue, the following Saturday before the game in which his team were easily beaten at home by modest Peterborough, a 3000 word pamphlet of paranoid intensity, accusing the media - "rats" - of a conspiracy against the club!

The question is, has violence returned to British football? The answer of course is that it never went away, though what happened at Cardiff and, a few days later, at Millwall and Chelsea when players had a bottle, a meat pie and coins thrown at them, is an alarming new trend. Broadly speaking, however, the advent of closed circuit TV has enabled the police to gain the upperhand, quickly to locate trouble in the stadia and to swoop on it. The hooligans have simply transferred such violence - what happened at Cardiff being a worrying new trend - to the streets. Band of hooligans actually arrange to fight, making use of mobile phones, seeking areas where the police are unlikely to intervene; but old habits die hard, not least among the fans of a club like South East London's Millwall, notorious for violence among its supporters since the far off 1920s.

This season, a group of Millwall thugs attacked followers of Portsmouth far away from the New Den stadium smashing up a pub near Waterloo Station. A worrying development has been the emergence of a new group of very young toughs indeed. Recently police even detained a boy of 10!

How much can be done about it and how much is football itself to blame? Those of us who follow the blight of hooliganism have long been all too well aware that it has never been truly suppressed; and that it indeed merely reflects the growing violence and brutalising of our society at large. Football violence is thus essentially a symptom, and to condemn it and football itself, making reference to the loutish drunken behaviour of many British players into the bargain, is superficial. Never would I follow the fatuous theory that "we are all to blame," but things must be seen in perspective. The apple as they say does not fall far from the tree.

It should not be forgotten that never for a moment has the violence of hooligan England fans be suppressed. To try to do so, as indeed the authorities and the football association do, is like trying to bail out the Pacific with a thimble. One thing you can say for the Japanese-South Korean World Cup is that at least it is so far from Britain and so expensive to get to that it will radically cut down the number of thugs who go. But when England play abroad, the bitter truth is that they are followed by thugs from all over the country, revelling in the chance of displaying a twisted and perverted patriotism. They caused abundant trouble at the 1998 World Cup, they did so again at Euro 2000 in the Low Countries. Many of them support obscure clubs in the provinces which alas all too often have their hooligan gangs.

Unless you ban all England fans from travelling as has been done in the past, or, the ultimate sanction, ban the England team itself, what can possibly be done? For every hooligan detected and banned from travelling, a dozen or more will spring up. In England itself, and in Wales, however, something can be done. At least inside the stadia. Wisdom begins in no longer turning a blind eye to reality. Hooliganism may have been less evident, but it has, alas, never disappeared.