James Lawton: The yobs may go to ground but they will not go away

A scourge has returned to a sport now built on riches unthinkable to most fans – but the solutions must come from outside the game

The worst of it is the terrible inevitability, the way the pictures of riot and brutality could have been plucked from almost any time and any place over the last 50 years of English football.

There was also the fact that the drink and the hatred and frustration with overwhelmingly bleak lives is always going to spill over into something destructive.

What has to be disregarded most stringently is the pain caused by political preaching; calls for a new attack on the "tiny minority" who spoil it for the rest of us.

Tiny minority, did you say? Let's get something straight right away. If it is true the incidence of the kind of violence that we saw in and around Upton Park on Tuesday when Millwall came to visit has declined sharply from its high scum mark of the Eighties, the reality is that football is as vulnerable to Britain's ever more rampant yob culture as it has ever been.

The worst miscreants may lay low for a little while, but you know they haven't gone way, not while their thuggish cult is cultivated for days like Millwall versus West Ham.

Why would they go away? Have their lives been blessed with new horizons, new opportunities, new examples, has anyone convinced them that there is more to life than binge drinking and all its consequences?

Is their breeding ground any less malignantly fertile? Is their mood sweetened by reading that the superstars of Chelsea blew a reported £100,000 on one nightclub spree while their own chances of earning enough to produce a deposit on some box of a house retreat ever further into fantasy?

Football, naturally, is required to cringe and agonise over the latest return of the hooligan beast but once again it is palpably the victim of a society being stripped of the most basic standards of behaviour.

Back in the Eighties Margaret Thatcher was lecturing football even as she was announcing there was no such thing as society. Certainly she was right in the sense that there was not a whole one, where the most culturally and economically disadvantaged received encouragement to behave as though they had an investment in anything but a drink-sodden, dysfunctional way of life. No, there are no easy remedies now beyond the valid calls for permanent bans for anyone caught behaving unlawfully within a ground – and the most strenuous sentencing for those outside who have plainly come along to spread danger and chaos in the streets. However, this would be a lot easier done if so many clubs didn't blench at the exorbitant charges levied on a police presence and there was anywhere to put the street thugs after they were sent down.

Or if young people were a little more likely to pick up values from a teacher operating on a pupil ratio which makes it some achievement if he remembers all their names.

If you love football enough to attend the live action the price is almost inevitable revulsion at the language and demeanour of so many inside the stadiums.

Outside, one of the most pervasive rituals is public urination. In the old days that was judged an indecent act. Now it is a commonplace, often not remarked upon for fear of instant retribution and rarely, if ever, prosecuted.

Football, the national sport, has been exposed to such behaviour for the best part of half a century now and what is so depressing is that the central problem is as apparent as ever. Strong action may suppress the worst examples of the problem but plainly it cannot remove it. Now, as unemployment figures rise, as the youth of the country increasingly find themselves in a great kraal of futility, who can wonder that the peace football enjoyed once again looks so at risk?

Maybe one of the saddest aspects of this week's events was the mournful, almost disbelieving reaction of the West Ham manager Gianfranco Zola. The little man from Sardinia, for so long a representative of so much that is best about football, said, "I'm sure there will be inquiries and they will try to look at the situation. I was completely shocked. Certainly it is not good for football. What can I say? I'm a sport man. I love the game. I love to go on the pitch and try to make it exciting for the supporters and enjoyable for everyone to watch."

He was echoing the words Bill Nicholson, the late manager of Tottenham, uttered 35 years ago when his club's fans rioted in Rotterdam and 200 finished up in hospital. The scenes hastened the great manager's exit from the game. Trouble had been stirring throughout the day as fans ranged drunkenly across the city, knocking over café tables, and when it erupted inside the stadium, Nicholson went on the public address system and declared, "I'm ashamed to be an Englishman."

It sounds almost quaint now, that outrage from the former Durham Light Infantry fitness instructor, but you know quite how many times it has been expressed by his countrymen down all the years since then, when cities like Marseilles and Brussels, Rome and Dusseldorf have been turned into places of siege by visiting English supporters. In Marseilles, after the old harbour had been turned into a battleground, a Frenchman spat at the feet of an Englishman. "You people are disgusting," he was told.

It would be less than fair not to acknowledge the efforts of English football to shed itself of a curse that has so often been applied from beyond its own borders. Naturally, the 2018 World Cup campaign has been quick to speak of an isolated problem and the FA are surely right to call for tough sentencing and the enforcement of life bans for those guilty of crimes in the grounds.

Also understandable is the reluctance of the football authorities to acknowledge that ultimately the solution is beyond their means. Safety and decency on the terraces and the environs of the grounds is dependent not so much on a stronger, more disciplined English game but a stronger, more disciplined England.

Let's hope this is remembered by every politician from the Prime Minister down. What happened in West Ham this week, after all, was not a sign of an imperilled sport but an unravelling nation.

In our article 'The yobs may go to ground but they will not go away' (27August 2009) we referred to reports published elsewhere that Chelsea FC players had spent £100,000 on a nightclub spree. We are happy to clarify that the event was paid for by people unconnected with Chelsea and the cost was approximately £6,000

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