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Is this the return of hooliganism? No.

The fighting involving Millwall and Newcastle fans last weekend was notable because it's now so unusual.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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It’s official: the ‘English disease’ is back. Millwall fans brawling at Wembley. Fans openly snorting cocaine in the concourses. Newcastle supporters running amok in the city centre. One fan caught on camera punching a police horse. Hooliganism is back with a vengeance.

Well, that’s one way of looking at things. Certainly, if you watched the TV footage or read Monday’s more lurid headlines, you might be a tempted to draw that conclusion. But you’d be wrong. Some perspective is needed here. The disturbances witnessed last weekend weren’t pretty. But nor were they typical of 99 per cent of football matches. The violence was shocking precisely because it was so exceptional.

Inevitably Millwall, a club with an unenviable and longstanding reputation for thuggery, finds itself in the dock again. And there’s no denying that some fans associated with the south London club enjoy a bit of aggro. Millwall is still an intimidating place for away teams and fans to visit. But you’d rarely see crowd trouble at the New Den these days. Speak to Millwall fans – and I know a fair few – and they’ll tell you that the troublemakers don’t go to matches every week. They’re the hooligan version of glory hunters. They only come of out the woodwork for certain games, especially if there’s a chance of a ‘tear up’. Cup ties. in particular, where tickets can be more easily purchased and banning orders circumvented, tend to attract the veteran bootboys of the 80s. In August 2009, there were violent clashes between Millwall and West Ham fans outside Upton Park when the two teams met in the League Cup.

There are many who will conclude that Millwall fans plus alcohol equals crowd trouble. If there’s no rival ‘firm’ to fight then, as we saw on Saturday, they’ll fight each other. But the reality is somewhat more complex than that. There were over 30,000 Millwall fans at Wembley on Saturday. At most, there were a few dozen fans involved in the scuffles – a tiny fraction of Millwall’s support. The vast majority of Millwall fans were well behaved. A significant number of them were booing the troublemakers. They shouldn’t be tarred with the same brush as the few drunken idiots.

First-hand accounts from Millwall fans who were at Wembley suggest that the brawling was ignited when a few drunken fans started stumbling over seats and started arguing and trading punches with other fans. One Millwall supporter, whose eyewitness account was doing the rounds on Twitter on Saturday evening, said: ‘From what we could work out, there were one or two drunk guys who started pushing and shoving… This simmered on for a while and they were stumbling across rows knocking into others. The people they were knocking into were with their families and obviously reacted and told them where to go (like anyone would). The drunk guys then started on these people.’

This version of events is corroborated by boxing promoter and Millwall fan Frank Maloney in the Telegraph: ‘We were just above it when it kicked off. A little girl was pushed first of all by a drunk fan, and a man who looked as if he was her father came in and asked the drunk to apologise, and he wouldn’t. Instead, he threw a punch at the man. As the fight then ensued, other people were dragged into it as it escalated.’

Crowd trouble at football doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s too simplistic to reduce it to drunkenness or an innate propensity of working class men to violence. It is a dynamic process and the way crowds are managed or policed is an important contributory element of that dynamic. Some Millwall supporters have complained that the stewards did nothing to stop the initial fighting and that the police not only arrived too late, but actually helped to escalate the violence by indiscriminately setting on fans with batons. Spectators who hadn’t been involved in the initial trouble reacted to the aggressive police tactics and fought back. According to Frank Maloney: ‘Three police officers came charging in like the cavalry just grabbing people, and hitting anyone in the way with batons. The thugs and the morons started pushing back and pushed the police down the stairs.’

Perhaps the Wembley authorities were caught off guard and weren’t expecting Millwall fans to start on each other. Arguably they should have been better prepared for drink-fuelled disorder given the 5.15pm kick-off time. Whatever the reasons – and I’m not absolving Millwall fans of any culpability here – it’s clear that poor crowd management contributed to the disturbances. The police responded too late and then too aggressively, inflaming rather than defusing the trouble.

Before we start bemoaning the return of the soccer thugs, we need to put the ugly scenes at Wembley into proportion. When was the last time we saw fans fighting in the stands in a televised game? Mass violence inside a football stadium is now extremely rare in England. The government’s most recent statistics, which cover the 2011-2012 season, show that arrests at domestic football matches are, in the words of Home Office minister Damian Green, ‘at an all time low’. There were 2,363 arrests at all English club games last season, a rate of 0.72 arrests per match or one arrest per 15,782 spectators. The figures speak for themselves. Football hooliganism is not a problem. The scenes we witnessed at the weekend were certainly ugly. but they are still the exception, not the norm.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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