In the midst of any hysterical reaction there are always the cynically pessimistic and the daftly optimistic. Still, it was more than a little worrying to hear Lord Triesman, the Football Association chairman, saying he hoped Tuesday's grotesque display of hooliganism "was merely a blip".
Hundreds of men, most old enough to know better, went out that night with the intent of bashing each other senseless in the name of a Carling Cup tie, so the chance of it being a "blip" is sadly remote enough for the FA's inquiry to dismiss it immediately.
So what will they be left with? Apart from the proceeds of a hefty fine or two, not a great deal. Yes, some harsh penalties on behalf of the courts and a raft of life-time bans on behalf of the clubs, will go some way to satisfying the outcry (which has predictably come mainly from politicians who can spot a win-only "killing children is wrong" pulpit from a thousand paces). And yes, a considerable upping of police presence will ensure no such high-profile repeats in the foreseeable. But the cause will still be there, as will the trouble, out of the CCTV's all-seeing eye and hence out of the media. To eradicate that is an impossible task for any authority, let alone the FA, to sort out.
For starters they would have to rip up society and start again and rip up English football and start again. Even then, hooliganism would still likely start again and would still likely use football as its excuse. With their identities based on the pride of the area, football clubs are just too damn convenient for "thugs", "hooligans", "not proper fans" – call them what you will – to unload testosterone. The intelligentsia can theorise all they like.
Is it a class thing? Perhaps. But males from any background can become addicted to the buzz of violence, whether it be in the act itself or in the planning and anticipating. They can also become hooked on the notoriety. The "top boys" in the "top firms" are treated like celebrities in their own communities, as well as in the communities of other firms. Hooliganism might not offer a poor lad a ticket to riches, but it does offer a route to "respect", or what is perceived to be respect. While the vocal majority are labelling the perpetrators of the midweek violence as the scum of the earth, plenty of those around the said scum are holding them up as protagonists. These are the people they live alongside and drink alongside.
Will tough prison sentences act as a deterrent? To the miscreant, maybe, although maybe not when one contemplates the age of some of those on view in midweek. Meanwhile, to the next generation, the glorification of terrace unrest has reached unprecedented levels and here is a trend which should truly concern the authorities.
As well as commandeering an unhealthy portion of YouTube, there is an entire and ever growing industry in football violence. Books written by former "faces", minutely detailing their "rucks", are published seemingly every month and while these biographies invariably end with a chapter about them ultimately seeing the error of their ways, nobody should be duped by the validity of their standing as social commentaries. Naturally, books lead to films and films lead to television spin-offs and there has been a glut of celluloid activity on this score; from "Green Street", the Hollywood glamourisation, to Sky's yet more putrid series "The Real Football Factories". Next month "The Firm" hits the cinemas and like Green Street it is based around the West Ham-Millwall enmity. I've yet to have the pleasure, so can't pass comment. All I can say is the timing of its release has been inspired.
In fairness, all of the above are simply reflecting what remains a huge part of the football-watching culture.
They always say it is only a "tiny minority" who seek to pulp their hated rivals. OK, if they insist. But that "tiny" figure is multiplied many, many times by those willing to perpetuate the hateful rivalry. All-seated or not, the anti-them chants continue to ring out at our stadia and while, again, those singing form just a fraction of the attendance, again those prepared to acknowledge the chants multiplies alarmingly. Especially when it comes to sniggering at what is decreed to be the wittier observations of the mob.
On The Independent website last week, the most read sports story by far was a collection of the readers' "funniest football chants" (it was put up before Tuesday's match). Predominantly they were crude put-downs of the opposing team's locality and what is perceived to be the inadequacies of that locality, although racism and homophobia were also richly represented. Most of the postings would be considered offensive by some; some offensive by most.
I doubt whether the contributors think of themselves as part of football's problem and still less as connected to those bloodied brutes in east London. Perhaps they should. For it is all connected, it has to be. From the West Ham lout who brains a Millwall counterpart, to the "real fan" who weeks, months, or years later has a laugh and a wink with his mates about how those two teams properly hate each other. It's the stuff of legend; except the legend remains and the stuff is forgotten.
Believe it, all we saw in and around Upton Park last week was the extreme flashpoint of English football's deeply rooted culture. It will happen again. The where and the when is all the authorities can ever hope to control.Reuse content