Fans and violence

British police officers in riot gear surround football supporters outside Upton Park stadium in London. A fan was stabbed during large scale violence before an English League Cup game between West Ham and Millwall.-PICS: AP

Confrontations between hooligan supporters are all too frequently pre-planned, though usually in places carefully selected away from the grounds and therefore ideally away from the police who, it is hoped, would thus not be able to interfere, writes Brian Glanville.

The recent, horrific scenes of violence around the West Ham United ground at Upton Park, East London, on the occasion of their League Cup match against their deadly local rivals, Millwall, raised sinister memories of the not so distant past, when hooliganism seemed to be part and parcel of English football. All too often following the England team abroad: and leading to the appalling Heysel disaster of 1985 in Brussels, when 39 Juventus fans were crushed to death after bei ng attacked by Liverpool thugs.

The violence around Upton Park surged on for the better, or worse, part of six hours. There were simply not enough police to subdue it. Inside the ground, there was constant uproar, periodic invasions of the pitch by West Ham fans, vicious racist chanting by those of Millwall.

Immediately, there was talk of sanctions on both clubs, of action by the Football Association. Police were blamed for limiting the number of Millwall fans permitted at the game to a mere 2300; as if a larger allocation would have made the slightest difference. The pitifully naive idea that the more Millwall fans allowed into Upton Park, the fewer there would have been to riot in Green Street and its environs was risible. Thousands of Millwall toughs, like their West Ham equivalents, came not to watch the match but to fight, with bricks, with bottles, with fists and feet. A hapless 44-year-old Millwall fan, there in the wrong place at the wrong time was stabbed while protecting his son. A 20-year-old West Ham thug was subsequently arrested. Yet, a mere 14 arrests were made by the police among the hundreds who ran riot. Though it was threatened or promised that further arrests would be made on the basis of video evidence. Yet, what good would that do? True, thugs can be banned from the grounds, but who is to stop them getting into matches when they want to? Unless they have to report to police stations each Saturday.

The fact that much of the violence was pre-planned seems beyond doubt. But then again anyone who knows the hooligan scene and its brutal history could have told you that must happen. Such confrontations between hooligan supporters are all too frequently pre-planned, though usually in places carefully selected away from the grounds and therefore ideally away from the police who, it is hoped, would thus not be able to interfere. Yet, knowing all this, what possessed the Metropolitan Police to allow this powder keg of a game to go ahead in the first place? And having so foolishly allowed it, why were there so relatively few police to deal with it?

On some occasions, the police and the authorities can hardly predict violence. There was such a case a couple of years ago when Millwall, at home in their relatively new Bermondsey stadium, played hosts to Birmingham City in a game which would decide which team would be promoted to the top division. As it transpired, Birmingham, the visitors, unexpectedly won it and the riot which ensued was vicious in the extreme. I knew all about it because my son Mark, an expert in football hooliganism who has written a book largely about it, though he also has an Oxford classics degree and was for years an opera singer, was in the middle of the chaos, telling me over his cell phone what was happening. The outnumbered police, he said, behaved with astonishing bravery.

But then Millwall fans, in the vernacular, have a record as long as your arm. West Ham’s fans goodness knows are no angels. Their hooligan element, self-styled ‘The Inter City Firm’, have been notorious for their violence. They even had visiting cards made to be left on their victims. And some of them were certainly involved in the battles of Upton Park.

Millwall, however, hard though, over the years, their club authorities have tried to stop it, have a record of fan violence which goes right back to the 1920s, when their ground was periodically closed after riots. They began as a club close to West Ham in East London, but, in 1910, they moved to south east London in a ground somewhat appropriately located in Cold Blow Lane and known, since Millwall were nicknamed The Lions, as The Den. It was a rough, tough Docklands area, and ‘The Den’ became notorious over the years for pitch invasions during games. Curiously, Millwall were the last of the 11 London League clubs to get into the top division, but when they did, belatedly, do so, it was with some style and success, notably with the productive goal getting partnership up front of the England International to be, Teddy Sheringham and the Ireland international, Tony Cascarino. Since then, alas, they have sunk into the lower reaches of the League. The docks no longer exist, the tradition of violence does.

Perhaps one of the worst, quite recent, examples of Millwall fan violence took place outside London when Millwall were up against the Bedfordshire club, Luton Town. Not only the Millwall hard cases but ruffians from all over London converged on the Kenilworth Road ground, and the subsequent violence was appalling.

A supporter waves his shirt after the match was interrupted by a pitch invasion.Several hundred fans confronted each other in streets close to the stadium, and police revealed CCTV footage of supporters hurling bottles and bricks at officers outside Upton Park.-

What should be grasped about the recent abominations at Upon Park is that they were not, in any sense, a “one off.” Football violence has not been eliminated from English football. It has simply, so to speak, gone elsewhere. Away from the stadiums, where it was so horribly evident in the 1970s and after, simply because the police, with their CCTV cameras, could keep such tight crowd control inside the grounds. So fans who wanted to fight, as, alas, so many of them did, were largely obliged to do it elsewhere. Millwall’s, whatever the club tried so admirably to do about it, and despite the disappearance of the docks themselves, continued to be ferocious and formidable. As indeed, did those of Liverpool who, when Manchester United and their fans visited Anfield would turn their city into a cauldron of hatred.

Though to be fair, Italy has been as bad and worse: as English fans have all too painfully experienced, when their clubs visit Rome and are all too frequently stabbed in the buttocks.

Indeed going back to 1985, you might say that at the bottom of the appalling Heysel disaster was the brutal attacks with chains and knives of young Roma fans on Liverpool’s after Liverpool, on penalties, had beaten their team in the European Cup Final of May 1984.

West Ham, meanwhile, though they can hardly be held responsible for what happened so appallingly outside their stadium, laid themselves open to disciplinary action by the authorities for what happened inside Upton Park: the pitch invasions in particular.

My feeling remains that any punishment would be hard on the Hammers, that the true culprits, be they the flaccid football authorities or the complaisant police, are the obvious ones, for letting such a game go ahead at all. Useless even to have played it behind closed doors, the thugs, in all probability would still have come. How about using a distant neutral ground? Newcastle, perhaps, in future?