James Lawton: Fresh bout of English disease produces sense of futility

Bratislava experience demonstrates that the Japanese antidotes merely attacked the symptoms of hooliganism. The problem has not gone away
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It is nearly 40 years since I first witnessed close-up an example of English football hooliganism. A group of Everton fans terrorised a train travelling across the north of England.

It is nearly 40 years since I first witnessed close-up an example of English football hooliganism. A group of Everton fans terrorised a train travelling across the north of England.

One of them hit a railway employee with a bottle thrown through a window as the train went slowly through Huddersfield station. He went down like the victim of a sniper bullet. It was awful to see. They urinated in the corridors, traumatised a young girl, and the authorities were so bemused they allowed this hellish journey to proceed without intervention. Sometimes I speculate on whether the swift assignment of a small detachment of SAS might have removed the whole squalid phenomenon at birth.

Ten years later, in Rotterdam, I saw the first serious violation of foreign soil. Café tables were turned over in one lemming rush by a bunch of Tottenham fans. More than 200 people were taken to hospital. The mayor of the city said that he couldn't believe the culprits were from England. At half-time in the Feyenoord Stadium the great manager, Bill Nicholson, came on the public address and said: "For God's sake stop. You make me ashamed to be an Englishman."

It's all a bit of blur after that, but if you can concentrate the mind there are certain lowlights. There was the time outside Düsseldorf station in 1988 during the European Championships when a colleague had to be rescued from a group of English supporters who had recognised him from his picture byline. The whole square was filled with paddy wagons and debris. In Marseilles at the World Cup four years ago the battle of the Old Port unfolded under my hotel window. Eventually, the French police formed below my balcony and stacked their tear gas canisters. Someone came into the hotel lobby with his throat cut.

In all cases, right up to Bratislava last weekend, outrage was the only appropriate response. Rage, though, is a high maintenance emotion. Bone-weariness is one price. Another is an absolute sense of futility.

One of the charms of watching the World Cup in Japan, despite the ultimate disappointment of what happened on the field, was that it was free of the usual disfigurement. One theory on the lack of English hooliganism was that it had been prevented by the astronomic cost of the trip. Another was that some of the hard boys had seen footage of Japanese riot police in special training – or even clips of the local television game shows periodically aired by Clive James, which were almost as frightening. There were also encouraging reports that the authorities had fitted up a boat for use as a floating prison for anyone deemed to be littering the pavements with their presence.

Unfortunately, we learned in Bratislava, the Japanese antidotes had merely attacked the symptoms. The disease rages on.

The Slovakian capital appeared to be a perfect target: narrow streets, under-prepared policing, a big old main square/battleground, and a ramshackle stadium. What perhaps hadn't been properly understood but would have been apparent quickly enough to anyone operating this side of a drunken stupor was that gun possession in Bratislava is pretty much at the level of Dodge City and Wichita at the height of the Cattle Wars. Tell-tale evidence of this was part of the wall decoration in the casino bar of the hotel which was home for some of the better-heeled English fans. It was a large picture of a gun crossed out in red strokes. Smoking, however, was permitted.

One of the certainties when, as they say in the wearisome hooli-speak, "it all goes off," is that there will be a raft of extenuating circumstances. Last Friday night a couple of trigger-happy security men happened to give a little more credence to the usual charge that the locals had "over-reacted." It is true that shooting someone in the throat brings a new edge to the term "zero tolerance", but then perhaps on these occasions we should remember quite what it is that requires the toleration.

It is brutishly menacing behaviour created by Doomsday drinking and an inevitable descent into violent conduct.

There is no solution short of a wholesale recasting of a large section of our society. The most risible reaction of the weekend came from the Football Association official who asserted that part of the provocation of the English fans was the racial abuse suffered by Ashley Cole and Emile Heskey. This implied finer feeling on the part of the hoolies. A preposterous proposition.

Maggie Thatcher once asserted hooliganism was football's problem. It never was, at least not exclusively. From time to time people who drop into the situation, like David Mellor and the former spin doctor Charlie Whelan, both mysteriously employed to pass on their views on sport, assert that the hooligans have a rough time at the hands of the local police. Mellor was particularly voluble about this in Rome in 1997. The reality was the Eternal City had experienced some of its worst moments since the Visigoths crossed the Tiber.

Bratislava was particularly sickening because of a vague sense that the virus, having been checked by the unpromising terrain of Japan, had perhaps runs its course. But no, it was rampant again and the rage should have been summoned easily enough. However, in all honesty, it was somewhat elusive. Even the shame was dulled. But then how many times can you be sorry – or try to try explain the inexplicable? The irrefutable truth is that England long ago lost its right to enjoy support on a foreign field.

Ulrika the entertainer

Ulrika Jonsson's tawdry but soporifically tame exploitation of her affair with Sven Goran Eriksson – for which she was paid the best part of half a mill-ion pounds – was not entirely without entertainment value.

Indeed, there was a wonderful sense of the surreal when she revealed that Eriksson's request for her telephone number signalled to her a desire for friendship with a fellow Swedish expatriate, and perhaps the odd nostalgic rumination about the beauty of the midnight sun. "Call me naïve," wrote Ulrika, "but that's what I thought."

So if Ulrika is naïve, what does that make George Bush? A friend of the earth, perhaps.