"Report on the football," yelled a Chelsea fan at the press box as police were preventing a riot behind him a couple of Wednesdays ago. I would like to, and indeed still love to, but in this, the mother of all football seasons, that seems almost fanciful.
There have been investigations into the business dealings of the England coach Terry Venables, allegations of bribery against the Southampton goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar and of corruption against the Arsenal manager George Graham.
At least, we were assured, crowd violence belonged to another era. The sparkling new all-seater stadiums were a monument to that. But then, a month ago, Manchester United's Eric Cantona vaulted a barrier and aimed a kung-fu kick at a Crystal Palace supporter, an incident that, with hindsight, seems to have raised the temperature within the game.
It was Mad Wednesday Part One, and grisly sequels came with depressing regularity. At Blackburn the following week, a fan ran on to the pitch attempting to assault a referee who had awarded a late penalty. Another week on, and mounted police were called in to help quell a riot by Chelsea supporters trying to charge Millwall fans at the end of an FA Cup tie. In between, Manchester City's Maine Road ground had seen fighting during the derby match with United.
Then came Dublin to prove that hooliganism - the disease the English identified then exported - had never truly disappeared. Those closest to the game never believed it had. Indeed, those of us who earn our living around football, familiar with sophisticated policing and security operations, may have become too tolerant, almost immune to some of its ugliness. For the English experience of the game it gave to the world, which Pele called "the beautiful game", can still be ugly, in language and behaviour. The anger and bigotry that spews forth from its towering new stands may be a reflection of society but it is hard now to avoid the feeling that these edifices stand like Ozymandias - "Look on my works ye mighty and despair".
Those of us who came of age on the terraces 20 years ago were accustomed to fighting between rival sets of supporters who battled for territory. My own rite of passage came in the late 1970s when I saw a young spectator led out of a ground with a dart lodged in the side of his nose.
After Heysel in 1985, and the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, the cry of "never again" went up and fences came down. The Taylor Report advocated all-seater stadiums. The World Cup of 1990 brought a new mood of optimism, 25 million watching on television and the nation weeping with Gazza as England lost a semi-final to Germany.
A new culture attached itself to the game. The middle classes came to the working man's game to fill the plush new stadiums; style magazines caught on. Satellite television, bearing £304m, bought into it. This season began in high optimism. The magazine of the French sports newspaper L'Equipe ran 15 pages entitled "The English Football Revolution".
Those who rarely go to football could have been excused for thinking the game had been rid of its desperate image. A visit to a football match was like going to the theatre or cinema, an entertainment. But football is not like that. It is a tribal game that inspires high passion, and which mobilises some of the uglier elements of society. It can be, and often is, an uncomfortable experience, even if you pay £30 for one of the best seats at a Premiership game.
Anyone who has travelled on the District Line of the London Underground when Chelsea are playing at home, or gets an InterCity train when, say, Leeds United are on the move, knows the terror that football fans can bring with them, the insidious threat of violence. Exposure to the Club 18-30 generation, cans of lager in hand, swearing and taunting, is not a pleasant way to spend a Saturday.
Inside the ground, there are the chants we regulars barely notice but which might horrify a newcomer, especially one with a child. One of the favourites on the terraces at the moment is: "You're shit and you know you are," aimed at visiting fans. Not that offensive, you might say, but when it is given legitimacy in a sketch by the comedians David Baddiel and Frank Skinner on BBC 2's Fantasy Football League, it is clear that the attempt to tap into football's blokeishness has the effect of making coarseness acceptable.
THEN there is perhaps the biggest, most intractable problem: racism. Despite the advent of German, Romanian and Belgian taunts, the favourite remains: "You black bastard". Last season the Manchester United player Paul Ince had bananas thrown at him on his return to his former club West Ham. One-fingered salutes abound, along with gestures indicating masturbation. A woman spectator, meanwhile, should expect to encounter: "Get your tits out for the lads."
And buying the best seats does not guarantee protection. It is a problem of all-seater stadiums that, once you are assigned a place, it is impossible to move. There is no escape from the bore or bigot nearby as there was in the days of terracing.
All this was why none of the stories that came back to our hotel a few hundred yards from Lansdowne Road really shocked us. Manchester United and Leeds fans confronting each other at Ringway airport; Shrewsbury, Rotherham and Scunthorpe fans - for heaven's sake - fighting in Dublin city centre; passengers on Dublin commuter trains being treated to beery chanting and Irish "jokes" on the journey in from Dun Laoghaire. All standard stuff.
For those of us who have been privileged to cover the Republic of Ireland's joyous emergence in world football and exposure to their most peaceable and companionable supporters, Dublin in these rare old times has been a pleasure on match days, in keeping with my experiences of European cities when the English are not around. It is reported that hooliganism is getting worse in the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Italy, where a fan was stabbed to death two weeks ago. Yet my experience has been that an Englishman is welcomed if he demonstrates his civility.
Usually in Dublin, it was a stroll down O'Connell Street, a turn round St Stephen's Green, a light lunch and on to Lansdowne, lads. It held no attrac-tion last Wednesday. Best to keep your head down in Jury's Hotel near the ground, even if it did house the nose-biter Vinnie Jones, hero of the yob culture.
One of their number was pushing his beer belly past and imposing his Cockney accent on a patient line of Irish men, women and children seeking entry for some snatched refreshment. It gave the lie to the adage that the English are the world's best at queueing. Still this was standard stuff. Part and parcel, as they say in football.
So, too, the jeering of national anthems that precedes international matches. With the summer of 1996's European Championships in this country in mind, Terry Venables has deplored it at Wembley. There, the volume on the tannoy is now turned up so loud that the disrespect cannot be heard on radio and television.
This is the atmosphere of football; even in its new, improved comfort and safety, with its family enclosures and fast food points.
Has all this sickness this season been just a series of unrelated, isolated incidents? The FA, inundated with issues and scandals, had considered them so. But this is a game, like the society in which it operates, coming to confused, painful terms with an identity crisis: opulence on the one hand, poverty and envy on the other; open palm and clenched fist.
The maddest, baddest days may be over but probably not the mad, bad ones. The sophisticated police operations, refined to near perfection during the abundant opportunities of the last 20 years, may have contained and restrained the problem, but it did not eradicate it. (Ironically, it is that same police expertise that makes this country a good choice to host Euro '96.) And the experience outside the stadiums of dealing with civil disturbances from Toxteth to Brixton, not to mention in every town centre on a Saturday night, adds to the perception. The FA's chief executive, Graham Kelly, wants the 1996 championships to be "a celebration of the English way of life". Perhaps we should hope to the contrary.
Football's Premiership, the greed-is-good league, has been another mirror image of English society's unease with itself. The smaller Endsleigh League clubs have been excused from the table and left to pick up crumbs. Premiership salaries of up to £12,000 a week for players who can be transferred for £7m a time serve only to widen the divide.
In these lager-fuelled, satellite TV, get-rich-quick National Lottery days, a spontaneous and passionate sport provides an accessible, regular and still just about affordable venue and vehicle for the social resentment easily identifiable elsewhere in our lives - the angry, abusive drunk in the pub, or the manic, barging headlights-on-full-beam driver on the roads, for example. And football offers instant gratification for the lads targeted by those holiday adverts from the yob culture. "You get two weeks for being drunk and disorderly", they say. And "It's advisable not to drink the water - As if". Well in the winter it's not all sex, sex, sex and sex, as Club 18-30 seems to think. There's a bit of football as well.
DESPITE the high ticket prices, football will probably always defy gentrification. If it is no longer the beautiful game - though last summer's World Cup in the United States showed its potential on and off the field, without England's presence - it remains the simplest one.
"Why do you still cover it?" someone asked me the other day. It is the game's very spontaneity and simplicity. It is that when all the violence and sleaze is forgotten as a referee blows a whistle and 22 men at the peak of their physical powers stretch lungs and sinew in search of glory, everyday life and its problems are transcended. The experience and escape uplifts; entertainment is a bonus. At its best, even sometimes at its worst, it can celebrate the human spirit.
Schools and parents have the right messages to reinforce. One of the saddest reports last week concerned a returning hooligan who was a father of two. Football can be a huge force for good and it falls to the sport itself and those of us who love it to reclaim the game.
The anti-racist, anti-drug campaigns and the messages of sensible drinking and fair play need to be stepped up. We must be brave enough inside grounds to speak up, with support from other decent spectators, when we encounter ugliness.
Last year, I took my son to his first match - for safety reasons a semi- professional one. "Look dad, a header," he exclaimed as a centre forward fluffed an easy, early chance. Any professional world-weariness was banished in his delight. There are millions more like him out there, millions more than those in Dublin, who want to feel that way about football. Or at least we must hope so.
Leading article, page 20
Eamon Dunphy and Richard Williams, Sport, pages 8, 9Reuse content