Lingering aftertaste of an undercover cop-out

SPORT ON TV
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The Independent Online
THAT THE first edition of MacIntyre Undercover (BBC1) was a technical triumph is a statement with which few would argue, save possibly his subjects in the Chelsea Headhunters. Donal MacIntyre did not simply ingratiate himself with one of the country's most notorious, and suspicious, gangs of football hooligans, he managed to record the experience too. Even in the age of cameras in shirt-buttons, that takes some doing.

Nor can there be much doubt that his footage was as compelling as it was depressing. Despite the fact that the terrace riot has generally gone the way of the terrace itself, in the higher divisions at least, most of us always knew, deep down, that football remained polluted with human sewage like Jason Marriner and Andy Frain, two of the Headhunters with whom MacIntyre became most closely acquainted. Yet it was still grimly fascinating, this peep into their warped little world.

But when the voyeuristic thrill subsided, it was impossible not to feel soiled by the experience. Soiled, and also helpless, because MacIntyre was simply reporting what he saw and heard, not analysing it. Beyond a vague hope that the Government might "treat the cause, rather than the symptoms", there was no hint of how Marriner and the rest of them might one day be flushed away for good.

Indeed, the most profoundly depressing discovery of all was that there is a new generation of hooligans desperate to join in as the ageing yobs grow fat and listless. At first sight, Danny Walford, the leader of the Reading Youth Firm, might just as easily have been in charge of Reading Young Christians. As soon as he opened his mouth, though, an undiluted stream of hatred and violence emerged.

Walford talked with delight of how a Manchester United fan had screamed "like I've never heard anyone scream in my life" when he hit him with a twisted metal spike. It beggared belief that someone could have become so depraved, so young. But even he was as nothing next to Andy Frain, who was caught on video talking about the night he knifed an off-duty policeman. He seemed to get as much pleasure from telling the story for the hundredth time as he had from doing it in the first place.

MacIntyre was driving Frain and his mates to Leicester, where a fight had been arranged in a nearby town. The Leicester fans, though, did not show up, so Frain headed for home without even bothering to watch the match. Walford, meanwhile, held only a notional allegiance to Reading, and was happy to join up with Millwall fans travelling to Manchester City simply because the promise of violence was far greater.

Marriner, on the other hand, unfortunately gave the lie to the cliche, beloved of administrators and politicians with hands to wash, that "these people aren't real supporters". He was a Chelsea fan with the season ticket and tattoos to prove it, who also travelled to most of the team's games in Europe. The promise of thuggery along the way was an added incentive, but it was certainly not his only concern. A vicious, bigoted psychotic, yes. And a supporter, sadly, yes, that too.

Unlike MacIntyre, then, who had the tattoo - even if he did faint from the pain as he received it - but wasn't quite sure whether his celebrations were convincing when Chelsea scored in Copenhagen. And since he mentioned it, no, they weren't, although Marriner, standing two feet away, was too happy himself to notice.

Shortly afterwards, MacIntyre was set upon by a gang of Danish fans. "One of the unfortunate consequences of pretending to be a football hooligan," he said afterwards, "is that you become a target for the violence of other football hooligans." And now that he is no longer pretending to be a football hooligan, he will always be a target for the ones he duped. If nothing else, he deserves an award for bravery. A Distinguished Journalist's Cross, perhaps. With two bars.

But still you have to ask whether any of this really added to the sum of human knowledge. MacIntyre squeezed into the Headhunters' world, but was never in a position to ask any of them about their background, motivations, or, more realistically, what sort of deterrents might persuade them to give the aggro a rest. He could not even ask Marriner, as thorough a bigot as you could ever hope not to meet, about the irony of his support for a team composed almost entirely of foreigners.

Frain's boasts about stabbing a policeman might yet lead to a conviction, while Marriner, apparently, has lost his job and will probably lose his season ticket to Stamford Bridge too. But Frain has been convicted dozens of times before, without ever receiving more than a minor sentence, and Marriner will doubtless find a way in somehow. Walford, meanwhile, was looking forward to his first spell inside. "It's good to get a bit of time under your belt," he said.

And for as long as it's a bit of time, and not a 10-stretch, we're probably stuck with the lot of them.

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