The only surprising thing about the violence at Upton Park in the Carling Cup tie between West Ham and Millwall was that anybody was surprised by it.
From the moment the draw was made, all the signs of trouble were there. Two clubs with supporters from the lower-end who genuinely hate each other. Check. Four years since last game between the two, with future meetings unlikely in the near future. Check. Low key game unlikely to usually attract a big crowd. Check. Evening kick-off. Check.
What happened last night was a reminder that the ugly side of the beautiful game has never really gone away, but (hopefully) it would also be presuming a lot to say we’re about to see a return to the bad old days of British football in the 80s.
Last night was a night when, for what of a better turn of phrase, the idiots were out in full force. There is nothing more than you can say about those who got involved in a night where nobody, bar, as twohundredpercent note, Jack Collison, the young West Ham midfielder playing on after the death of his father, emerged with any credit.
The police could and should have done better. The stewards could and should have done better to prevent the West Ham fans invade the pitch not just once but three times. And those who invaded the pitch should have definitely known better.
All eyes will now be on the authorities to see how they’ll react, and there’s a fine line to tread here as well. Fines and banning orders will no doubt be the order of the day, although you suspect many of those involved outside the ground probably already have one, or aren’t exactly regulars at Upton Park these days.
If the punishment is too lenient, though, it sends the wrong message to the mindless idiots who ran riot last night. But there’s always the danger the police – and government – could use it as an excuse to turn the screw even further on ordinary, law-abiding football fans.
David Conn has a report today of Sunderland fans complaining about police treatment, while in recent years officers have been somewhat wide-ranging in applying Section 27 of the 2006 Violent Crime Reduction Act.
Stoke and Plymouth fans have both had this applied to them – forcing them to be contained and prevented from watching ties against Manchester United and Doncaster Rovers respectively. The Football Supporters’ Federation has been campaigning around this issue.
These, then, are realistic potential by-products of last night. Nobody is saying the police don’t have a difficult job when it comes to hooliganism (for anybody interested, figures on football violence are here), and football is now safer to watch, largely, than it has ever been. Long may that continue.
But it only takes one incident for the situation to change and the fall-out from last night could be wide reaching. Fines and life bans are not enough.
Hard as it seems on West Ham, who have endured a week you wouldn’t wish on any club, they should be thrown out of this year’s competition and forced to play at least one game behind closed doors.
Millwall, who all too frequently seem to find themselves at the centre of these events, should also face punishment (although it seems as if Hammers fans were slightly worse of the two last night. Not that this is any excuse), again in the form of a closed doors match.
Hitting both the club and fans (not that you can call those who got involved last night fans) where it hurts may make both buck up their ideas. Hooliganism is, sadly, unlikely to be eradicated from the English game. But individual clubs can go a long way to ensure we don’t return to the bad old days.