x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Back with a vengeance

There is nothing retro about football hooliganism in England, areas of which remain a strictly green and unpleasant land.

Carlton Cole is harassed by fans during a pitch invasion.
Carlton Cole is harassed by fans during a pitch invasion.

There is nothing retro about football hooliganism in England, areas of which remain a strictly green and unpleasant land. Nick Love's reworking of the television film The Firm is due for general release next month. The movie is the latest body of work to devote time to the somewhat depressing issue of the tribal violence that bolted itself to the country's national sport over two decades ago. If Love is seeking some modern action to plunge into a trailer for his new flick, he could do worse than collect the footage from the West Ham United versus Millwall minefield staged on Tuesday. A 3-1 win for the home side is surely the most useless piece of data one can take out of such a mortifying evening, happenings that provided glimpses of a stained past.

What should have been an innocuous Carling Cup tie between two London clubs became a crime scene. Upton Park was the bloodied focal point for the reawakening of the glamorised subculture of the "football casual", a figure who many thought had witnessed the peak of his gory years over two decades ago. He is alive and kicking in London. One man stabbed, several pitch invasions and arrests aplenty. Police on horseback, police in riot gear, police in helicopters and an assortment of "supporters" led away. Seats ripped up, bottles tossed and Carlton Cole. the West Ham player, allegedly suffering racial abuse. This was a night to prompt despairing glances.

Police in the UK and the Football Association were yesterday promising to launch investigations and impose life bans on the offenders. It sounded eerily like the state of the English game around the mid-1980s, a glimpse of a time when English clubs were viewed as a plague on Europe because of the characters they carried with them on overseas trips. English clubs were banned from Europe in June, 1985 after Liverpool supporters were blamed for charging at Juventus fans during the European Cup final in Brussels. A wall collapsed on fans, mainly of the Turin club, and 39 people died.

The English FA had already imposed a ban on its clubs because as Ted Croker, the then FA Secretary, said: "There are many of us who don't want to see us back in Europe until we have got our own house in order." The "football casual" subscribed to mindless, casual violence casually dressed in the best of labels. He went about his business wearing Burberry and Fred Perry, a devotee of gang violence and organised crime.

Football is the side issue, as countless documentaries have disclosed. Meetings are arranged on matchdays via mobile phones and the internet. Business cards are handed out. The casual has evolved, even if he is no longer such a visible threat. Clubs returned to Europe after a five-year exile around 1990. The inception of the Premier League in the early 1990s saw millions of pounds poured into new stadia and a plethora of famed players. The lunatic fringe clearly remains.

Football is held up as a middle class pursuit these days, but the violence which infiltrates the sport remains almost like a dirty secret. This is not the image the Premier League is trying to sell to the world. Just because it is not going on in its shiny grounds, does not mean its not kicking off somewhere else around town. There was trouble at the 1992 European Championship finals in Sweden, there was mayhem at an Ireland v England friendly which had to be abandoned in 1995.

The local authorities turned water cannons on England fans during Euro 2000 in Belgium and Holland amid hundreds of arrests. Britain has a morbid fascination with violence in football. The books of John King and movies such as Green Street, Rise of the Foot Soldier and The Football Factory have all tried to portray and explain the reasons why the football casual exists, almost in a romanticised style. It is simple to blame the culture of hooliganism on the recession. Young unemployed people may have more time on their hands, but the football casual has attracted English men from all walks of life, and all ages.

At the height of the problem in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher was the prime minister, and ID cards and CCTV cameras were needed to sort out true fans from the pond life. Perhaps West Ham and Millwall should play future matches behind closed doors. The authorities have tried to take hooliganism out of English football, but they have not taken the animal out of the boy. The Premier League needs the rise of a new breed of foot soldiers like a hole in the head.