Comment: The fear that dare not speak its name

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The Independent Online
It was a cruel irony that one of the most magnificent semi-finals in the history of the FA Cup should have been scarred by the pitch invasion by Manchester United fans after the extra-time victory over Arsenal at Villa Park on Wednesday night.

What made it particularly demoralising was that it took place on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy which caused 96 deaths and which was movingly commemorated by the 14,000 people who attended a service of remembrance at Anfield on Thursday.

Arsenal's fans were not entirely blameless for the semi-final eruption, and the euphoria created by Ryan Giggs' masterpiece did provide some measure of mitigation for United's supporters. But even if the 700 pitch invaders were propelled more by celebration than malice, the sight still churned the stomach.

Players had to be dragged out of the melee by stewards, 13 supporters were treated for minor injuries and there were 17 arrests. Hardly a bumper harvest but ominous nevertheless, and one does not have to be excessively doomladen to dread any copy-cat activity by Millwall fans at the Auto Windscreens Shield final at Wembley this afternoon.

No one has yet been insensitive enough to suggest that a degree of fencing ought to be restored but the incident was a poignantly timed reminder that there is a distance yet to be travelled before we can be satisfied that the potential for further disaster has been reduced to acceptable levels; and that includes the lower leagues where there is dereliction still to be attended to.

The Villa Park scenes would have been most distressing to those closely affected by Hillsborough and whose only consolation had been that the victims were martyred in the cause of ensuring complete ground safety in the future. Whereas they can be forgiven their misplaced confidence, the rest of us have no excuse.

Hooliganism was not the direct cause of the disaster but its glowering presence in football undoubtedly created the factors that led to it and since the upheaval that followed there has been a tendency to regard hooliganism as an extinct monster, and too many have allowed themselves the comfort of ignoring the regular outbreaks of evidence that the disease is still a threat.

As for the introduction of all-seated grounds as demanded by the Taylor Report, they have proved successful in raising the spectator profile - and the admission prices - but in terms of complete safety they are not the panacea if there exists a prickly minority who are resolutely determined to ignore the seats and stand.

If the investigation swiftly ordered into the invasion by the Football Association is to be more than the usual dollop of cosmetics it should take in the wider implications contained in the outburst from the Villa Park security chief John Hood. A former police superintendent, Hood said that before the end of the semi-final his main problem was that half the United fans refused to sit and were blocking gangways.

This made it easier for them to invade the pitch. He claimed that this insistence on standing was a persistent complaint at every ground United visit. It is not a problem of which United are unaware. Indeed, they have suffered from it so much at Old Trafford that they tried to curb it by drafting in more stewards, but there were so many complaints of harassment the extra stewards were withdrawn.

This difficulty was behind a United move a year or two ago to introduce a properly designed and secure small standing area that would accommodate the anti- sitters. It seemed like a very good idea to me, but it was denounced as a return to the dark ages and a sly way of cramming in more spectators and increasing the club's revenue ever further. The FA could do worse than make a more objective study of this idea as part of their consideration of how to tackle the problem.

It will certainly not be sufficient to maintain the hope that eventually the riff-raff will disappear as the quality of football's clientele improves. This attitude carries the arrogant assumption that loutish habits are confined to the lower echelons. There is a danger of pricing out the wrong people. They may be attacking the poorly funded instead of the poorly behaved.

It should be impossible for a Welshman to introduce a discordant note into the blessed happenings at Wembley Stadium last Sunday but an attempt must be made, none the less. Not that there was anything wrong with the game, or the occasion - and certainly not the result which even the bellyaching English coach, Clive Woodward, will have to accept sooner or later.

Oddly enough, Woodward's complaint is not all that dissimilar to mine. His concerns the penalty decision against Tim Rodber - mine concerns most of them. In common with a high percentage of the crowd I found many of the reasons for warding penalties beyond me. Such is the nature of offences in rucks, mauls and scrums it is not always easy to identify them, and although some of the referee's signals are sufficiently explanatory others are not, and the problem is worse the further one is away from the action.

Our big, shining new stadiums offer seats to more people, but they also locate a significant number in distant vantage points. Last Sunday I was seated high above the goal at the scoreboard end in the Olympic Gallery which hangs below the lip of the roof. It is a fairly new addition about which I have no quibbles. It affords a splendid view from comfortable seats with the bars and toilets much handier than in most other places in the ground. But the play is a long way away and in rugby union particularly that creates a problem of communication which needs to be solved.

No doubt, I've been spoiled by years in ideally situated press boxes boasting television monitors and been spared the frustration of not knowing what's going on. To pay pounds 45 a seat plus travelling expenses to find yourself at a considerable disadvantage to someone who's stayed home to watch it on television is a galling experience. It so happened that I would not have missed the experience of that event for the world, but it wasn't until I caught up with the newspapers and the video that I fully appreciated what went on.

It is much less of a problem in football and in rugby league decisions are far more efficiently signalled. Perhaps it is time for American football- style announcements after each decision. Certainly, an attempt should be made before the World Cup to find some way of enabling all the paying customers to follow the proceedings.

Constantly maligned it may be, but boxing still retains the old spirit of comradeship that most other sports have lost. This was evident on Thursday evening when the usual healthy batch of bruisers past and present attended the 48th annual dinner of the Boxing Writers' Club at the Savoy.

The British Boxing Board of Control secretary, John Morris, who received an award for outstanding services to the sport, spoke proudly of the family feeling maintained within boxing. Black sheep may abound but there is no doubting the existence of a strong essence of brotherhood. There was something even parental in their approval of the polite and confident way Richard Hatton, the 20-year-old Manchester welterweight prospect, spoke after receiving his award as the Best Young Boxer of the Year.

When responding on behalf of the guests, I ventured the opinion that, as a breed, boxers have long been the most articulate of sportsmen. Unfortunately, the former world light-heavyweight champion John Conteh, much in demand on the after-dinner circuit these days, did not see it as much of a compliment. "I don't even drive a lorry," he said.

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