The Last Word: Hooliganism isn't back... it never went away

Coins hurled at players, hoardings thrown at police, fan skirmishes – the bad old days are here to stay
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The Independent Football

It had been quite a pleasant Sunday afternoon in the Humberside sunshine. On the pitch at the KC Stadium there was nothing at stake other than a bit of belated pride, Hull City having already failed to preserve their Premier League status and Liverpool having already failed to qualify for a Champions' League qualifying round spot. It showed. For the most part, the fixture was played out with the intensity of a testimonial match.

It was not much of a nothing-nothing, but then came the ado at the final whistle. Home fans streamed on to the pitch at the final whistle, some surrounding Steven Gerrard, who pushed out at one when his captain's armband was tugged. The England midfielder looked more peeved than threatened as he made his way towards the tunnel, raising both arms above his head, as if to say to the great unwashed surrounding him: "Do not even think of touching me."

Meanwhile, an altogether uglier scene was developing at the junction of the North and East Stands. Rival fans were throwing missiles at one another. There was some mutual goading and then a charge that required the intervention of police and stewards to avert a mass confrontation. The Hull Daily Mail reported the following day that there had been four arrests. A Humberside Police spokesman said: "The vast majority of Hull City and Liverpool supporters attended the game yesterday to cheer on their team. However, a small number of people came intent on causing trouble."

It was a similar story at several other grounds on the final weekend of the regulation League season. At Burton, visiting "fans" went on the rampage at the final whistle, following confirmation of Grimsby's relegation from the Football League. Advertising hoardings were ripped up and thrown at police and there were skirmishes all around the Midlands town. Trouble was also reported on the edge of the Cotswolds at Cheltenham, where Accrington Stanley were the visitors.

Most depressing of all was the confrontation between rival supporters at the final of the Muratti Vase, the annual Channel Islands cup competition. Fans of Jersey and Guernsey clashed on the pitch at the final whistle at the Springfield Stadium in St Helier. Traffic cones and bottles were hurled and Guernsey fans had to be escorted to the nearby ferry terminal by police, for their own protection. "A small number of Jerseymen did not go to watch football and had other ideas on their minds," Inspector Alan Williamson of the Jersey Police force said.

All of this came while the Football Association were busy investigating incidents from the previous weekend. At Kenilworth Road, Luton fans invaded the pitch, threw coins at York City players and hurled brooms and mops at police. At Hillsborough, fans clashed on the pitch after the 2-2 draw that confirmed Sheffield Wednesday's relegation and Crystal Palace's survival in the Championship.

"Fears that hooliganism is returning to the English game have risen following a series of unsavoury incidents," one national newspaper website reported. It has, in fact, never gone away. In general terms, it has become less high-profile than it was in the bad old days of open conflict on terraces in the 1970s and 1980s – with notable exceptions such as the predictable all-out rumble that surrounded the Carling Cup tie between West Ham and Millwall last August. In some ways, however, it has become more ingrained.

Visiting the local Asda superstore for some ink to print out local newspaper reports of last weekend's trouble, it was ironic and deeply disheartening to walk down the books aisle and see two rows of shelving devoted to volumes celebrating the phenomenon of hooliganism. In between the biography section, featuring Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father, and the classics section, featuring 1984 and Little Dorrit, were such tawdry tomes as Terrace Legends and The Real Football Factories.

Hooligan 'firms' were around in the bad old days but they did not enjoy an acceptance into mainstream society, with books glorifying them on supermarket shelves and programmes devoted to them on late-night television. And back in the 1980s, good old Jim Bergerac could go about his business on Jersey without any danger of detecting football hooligans at work.

As worrying as the activities of the hard-core firms, who tend to cause most of their trouble in pre-arranged clashes away from the immediate vicinity of football grounds, has been the spread of tribal rivalry among the wider world of football fans. Driving away from Asda, the Nissan Micra in front had a "Baby on Board" sign in the back window and a sticker depicting a figure in a black-and-white shirt urinating on a red-and-white jersey. You would not have seen that in the 1990s, let alone the Seventies and Eighties.

It is symptomatic, of course, of a broader increase in snarling, confrontational, yobbish behaviour in public – the kind of blight on society it would be heartening to think the new Lib-Con government might start to eradicate. In reality though, we will still be talking about the plague of football hooliganism five years from now, and wringing our hands in despair.

"The Neanderthal monster," the Burnley defender Clarke Carlisle called it after witnessing it at first hand when his team played Blackburn at Turf Moor in March. Its ugly head is always there, waiting to rear up and cast a menacing shadow over the beautiful game.

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