Return of the thugs - but does this film give succour to the ugly side of the beautiful game?

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The Independent Culture

Groups of young, white Englishmen engage in drunken and mindless violence with each other under the guise of being football supporters. The scenario is by now a bloodily familiar one.

Groups of young, white Englishmen engage in drunken and mindless violence with each other under the guise of being football supporters. The scenario is by now a bloodily familiar one.

But are the violent clashes between gangs of Chelsea and Millwall supporters shown in the new film The Football Factory simply a depiction of a type of criminality that has been successfully marginalised - or are they likely to re-ignite the flames of hooliganism dormant in the national game among a new generation?

For many associated with a game now dependent on family enclosures and corporate sponsorship, this realistic, low- budget British film, based on a well-received book about the infamous Chelsea Headhunters gang, has come as an embarrassing reminder of how bad things can be, particularly in the run up to Euro 2004.

Uefa has warned England they could be thrown out of the competition if fans misbehave, as they did during Euro 2000. England fans also caused trouble during the World Cup in France in 1998.

Some have criticised the timing of the release of the film, and both the Football Association and the officially-sanctioned Football Supporters Federation have both distanced themselves from it. "No comment'' is the response of both when asked whether it is an accurate reflection of the modern game. Even Dennis Wise, player- manager of Millwall and a man not known for his considered approach on the field, banned his players from attending the premiere.

But it is clear that at least part of the world the film portrays still exists, despite the past decade's attempts to stamp it out in the wake of the rampant hooliganism of the 1980s and early 1990s, when gangs such as West Ham's Inner City Firm spread bloodshed and mayhem.

Only last week, 17 men, including a schoolteacher, were imprisoned for their involvement in a pre-planned mass brawl between Charlton and Southampton fans at a railway station in south-east London two years ago. Police said many of those involved would have been intent upon causing trouble in Europe this summer.

Dougie Brimson, a former soldier whose has written about hooliganism and his experience as a supporter, said such violence is typical of the low-level clashes that frequently take place. "This was a very violent encounter of the type that is happening all the time. But it barely gets reported because everyone is used to it. And frankly, there's far less trouble in the game than in the average city centre on a Saturday night.''

Brimson - who has written the screenplay for another forthcoming film about hooliganism, The Yank, starring Elijah Wood as an American who becomes involved with West Ham supporters - believes the propensity for some kind of violence is endemic in football.

"The game is a confrontational and aggressive one, with strong elements of tribalism among its supporters which is linked to another set of issues; racism, jingoism and patriotism. For many people it is the most important thing in their lives, it makes them feel part of a secret gang supporting a club for which they have the most fantastic loyalty, even if most of them are, statistically, losers.''

One thing is clear; thanks to a raft of measures introduced in recent years - such as CCTV on the terraces, tighter banning orders, members-only away tickets, all-seater stadiums and family enclosures - any violence which does exist almost always takes place away from the grounds themselves - as indeed the Charlton trial demonstrated.

Malcolm Clarke, chairman of the Football Supporters Federation, agrees with Brimson that "draconian" measures seem to have done the job. "I recently went to a match between Stoke and Millwall, two teams with a bad reputation, and yet I saw no violence whatsoever," he said. "Like all criminal activity, it cannot be eliminated completely, but I'm far more concerned about alcohol-related violence near my home on a Saturday night.''

Current Home Offices figures show that while offences in the 2002-3 season rose by 19 per cent, the actual number of incidents was less than 5,000. This equates to 3,695 arrests out of total league attendance figures of 28.3 million; an arrest rate of 0.01 per cent. The number of new bans imposed rose, during the same period, from 1,149 to 1,794.

Predictably, in view of the sheer number of fans, the highest numbers of offences were recorded among Premiership clubs, with Manchester United having the highest number of arrests (185). But the largest numbers of banning orders were in the lower leagues, with Second Division Cardiff City the highest (169). Although figures for this season have not been released, the feeling is that numbers are lower than last year.

David Swift, Chief Constable of Staffordshire and football spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers, and who will be in charge of policing fans in Portugal at Euro 2004, said a combination of tighter legislation, dedicated resources and police experience mean the hooliganism problem is now "managed". "But," he added, "that doesn't mean it has gone away.''

The FA are still so worried that, at a cost of £500,000, they bought 8,000 tickets for the England-Croatia match on 21 June to ensure they are sold only to vetted fans. Meanwhile, British and Portugese officers are working to identify potential troublemakers in what is the biggest operation of its type. Mr Swift is optimistic, but knows be cannot offer any guarantees. "You cannot expect to have no issues, with 50,000 fans heading for Portugal.''

FIGHT CLUBS

Chelsea
Once infamous for the Chelsea Headhunters, whose activities are the focus of The Football Factory film. Any violence will embarrass new regime of Roman Ambramovich.
Banning orders last season 41;
Arrests: 122
Violent offences: 5

West Ham
Once known for the Inter City Firm, which in the 1980's earned reputation for violence, marked by its members leaving their calling cards on victims. Banning orders last season: 31
Arrests: 57
Violent offences: 3

Millwall
First Division club which has made serious attempts to clean up act following major clash with Birmingham City supporters at the end of the 20001-2 season.
Banning orders last season: 86
Arrests: 18
Violent offences: 2

Cardiff City
Another First Division club with reputation for violence among its fans. Promotion this year to play alongside Stoke and Millwall led to fears of 'tinderbox' division.
Banning orders last season: 169
Arrests: 149
Violent offences: 11

Stoke City
Former home of legendary Sir Stanley Matthews has a reputation for troublesome fans born out of hard-drinking Potteries culture.
Banning orders last season: 124
Arrests: 69
Violent offences: 4

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