In sporting circles, one of the accompanying features of Margaret Thatcher’s death has been the retrospective look at how the culture of football shifted under the former Prime Minister from a game tarred with hooliganism and violence to one that could be embraced by all ages and backgrounds.
Last weekend, it seemed as if football had crashed back into a by-gone era as Millwall clashed with their own in the comfort of Wembley on Saturday, whilst Newcastle fans reacted to defeat by Sunderland by fighting in the streets, both incidents screened around the world, tarnishing the reputation that English football has done so well to restore.
It is indeed a sensitive time for football and its dark past. The news of Thatcher’s death coming a week before the 24th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, the first memorial since the true extent of the establishment’s role in the cover-up of the tragedy was exposed to the masses. Thatcher used Hillsborough as a vehicle to reform the game that was engulfed in bad news; the Heysel disaster in 1986, the riots of Millwall fans visiting Luton a year before, Hillsborough, albeit hideously and incorrectly, became the watershed for an era of unruly behaviour amongst football supporters.
The Bradford fire of 1985 in which 39 fans perished indicated how football stadiums in the 80s were ramshackle, forgotten arenas that had little regard for the safety of the people they played host to. Yet it was 4 years and 96 lives later when sprung football into action, leaving no choice but to eradicate the culture that demonised supporters and led them to behave according to how they were treated by the authorities.
The Lord Justice Taylor report of 1992 renovated the whole culture of a game that housed its followers in sub-human conditions behind chicken-wire fences. It was gross ineptitude of policing and the compact, neglected setting of an unsafe football stadium that caused the horror of Hillsborough, but its legacy remains one of high-class stadia, more organised policing and seating, something that has resulted in a warmer, more welcoming atmosphere, if not as partisan.
Millwall have endeavoured to move with the times. From the synonymity with hooliganism in the late 80s thanks to the Kenilworth Road riot of 1985 and the damage they caused to numerous businesses upon a trophy parade in 1988, numerous schemes have attempted to eradicate that terrible stereotype. There has been endless work in the community and charitable trusts, the club went to the extent of wearing “save Lewisham hospital” shirts when warming-up at Wembley, a measure to protest against potential NHS government cuts in the local area.
That is not to mention the membership schemes and banning orders they have incorporated, they were, after all, the first team to comply with Lord Taylor’s demand that all top-level grounds should be all-seater, moving into their New Den home in 1993.
Millwall’s bosses have strived desperately to clean the club’s image of the past 20 years, but there is still an underlying cancer that threatens the hard work. A league cup tie with West Ham in 2009 was marred by fighting and pitch invasions whilst two years later, a game with Middlesbrough was nearly called off after goalkeeper Luke Steele and a linesman were struck by missiles.
Predictably, the club’s hierarchy have done their best to distance themselves from the mindless scenes that blighted their appearance at Wembley on Saturday evening. Chief Executive Andy Ambler has met with the FA in order to help identify those who kicked and punched away their Saturday afternoon right next to the eyes of crying children. Chairman John Berylson meanwhile, also deplored the violence “they are not our fan-base, we don’t even know who these people are” said the American ex-Marine who has pumped £16 million into the club. “We will be investigating” he said.
The secretary of the Millwall Supporter’s Club, Graeme Smale, said people “treat the club like an old-fag packet”, turning up at big games in order to cause trouble whilst rarely attending league matches. “They are no good to us whatsoever” he said, “they want to misbehave, they are there for a reason, they are nothing to do with the football club.”
Danny Shittu and Shane Lowry, Millwall’s defensive duo, joined in with the condemnation, both using the word “minority”. They are right to do it, but sadly, a small number is all it takes to ruin reputations and pour embarrassment and shame upon a club. One can feel the frustration in Smale about the rogue element that the club seem simply unable to shake-off despite years and years of work with his words “I’m devastated”.
The fracas resulted in 14 arrests and issues on the standard of policing and the FA’s decision to schedule one of the games at 5:15, allowing for all-day drinking. Millwall’s ticketing policy has also been questioned, over 5,000 tickets were sold through general sale despite the strict measures the Lions have on their season ticket holders, who purchased the majority of the 30,000 plus allocation. All of them are stored on a database and all of them had their cards scanned when purchasing tickets, yet it is possible the general sale window which opened on April 5th allowed the unruly to get in.
“I don’t think that will be a problem” said Smale, “we sell responsibly…this is the third time we have been at Wembley and we have not had this problem before” and that is probably true, but the fact remains that Millwall have been tagged with the problem of hooliganism before and they now have to deal with it once more, 25 years after they, and football, woke up to a sense of community and rationalism.
ESPN beamed the alarming incident to the world just as the various news outlets did to Newcastle’s outbreak of violence outside St James’s Park the day after. Football seems to be embracing the repugnant problem of hooliganism again and it is discomforting to witness.
In fact, football is irrelevant to the madness, Wigan, little old Wigan Athletic, scored two goals at Wembley on Saturday and are in their first ever FA Cup final, but who cares when the game’s disease is starting to creep back in?
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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