They call it the beautiful game but this past weekend in England, it was anything but. For once, the players were not at the heart of it as the fans this time took centre stage in disgracing the nation’s favourite pastime. Violence and inappropriate behaviour marred three separate matches on Saturday and Sunday as hooliganism reared its ugly head once more. Scenes more recently found in Russian, Italian and Greek football reemerged from its slumber to tarnish what were three thrilling encounters.
In Stoke, with the home team fighting for Premiership survival, some of Stoke fans were caught on television publically mocking the Manchester United fans by making diving plane gestures and singing songs, in reference to the horrific Munich air crash in 1958 that killed 23 Manchester United players and coaching staff. Stoke fans claimed after the match that it was in retaliation for the United fans actions following a moving one minute clap salute to a 14 year old Stoke fan who had died earlier that week. The United fans, again in a small minority, were heard singing ” What the f*cking hell was that” after the conclusion of the tribute which sparked the outburst by the Stoke fans. But pictures after the match of a banner, held up by Stoke fans that read “Munich b*st*rds” suggests otherwise.
Up in Newcastle, violence erupted following the much anticipated Tyne-Wear Derby, contested between Sunderland and Newcastle. The rivalry between the two clubs is known but the two sets of fans have been fairly calm with their approach to each other for some years now, so Sunday’s explosion as somewhat unexpected. Having lost 3-0 to a rampant Sunderland, a small selection of Newcastle fans faced up to some Sunderland fns as they made their way home. Police on horses intervened and stood between the two sets of fans in an attempt to keep the peace. However the plan backfired as the Newcastle fans then attacked the police, with one fan actually punching a horse! Masked individuals taunted the police and the Sunderland fans as they actively looked to start a fight. After a few hours, police did manage to bring the situation under control and a total of 29 fans were arrested, including the individual who assaulted the police horse.
Keeping rival fans apart is hard enough for the police but when fans of the same club start to fight, the job is even tougher. This is exactly what happened at Wembley as Millwall fans brawled with each other during their FA Cup semi final match against Wigan. Millwall has had a reputation for bad fan behaviour for close to four decades now, with some of it captured in the movie The Football Factory starring Danny Dyer. But yesterday’s scenes, with several fans spotted throwing punches and others with severe cuts and bruises, is what the club is trying to get away from. The club has spent time and money trying to improve its reputation both on and off the pitch and until yesterday was on the path to success but yesterday’s events have pushed them back once more. Terrifying scenes captured the fighting and the fear of some people around them, including a young girl whose father was desperately trying to protect her from the violence all around.
Other smaller incidents involving Bradford and Portsmouth fans as well have made it a weekend to forget for the FA. All the clubs involved have come out publicly and criticized their fans that took part in these disturbances and vowed to take action on anyone found to be involved. The police will be conducting a series of investigations, along with the FA and various league bodies to understand what the root cause of these issues were. Late kickoffs which allow people to drink for extended time, low policing levels at games and after games as well as drug use and criminal intent have all been cited as reasons behind the trouble. But it seems like too much of a coincence that over two days there were five separate incidents of fan misbehaviour.
The problems in the Russian and Greek leagues were not dealt with quickly and were allowed to grow, resulting in the issues that they are seeing now so the FA must act quickly to prevent these type of incidents from becoming a trend. The FA and the clubs know that it is only a small minority of fans that are ruining it for the rest of them and they must act swiftly to stamp it out before it escalates. English football grew out of the hooliganism phase it went through in the 1970’s and 80’s so a return to those days would be very much unwelcomed. Football is about the fans, they are its life line but if the hooliganism aspect is not dealt with now, it could be the end of the beautiful game in England