Scourge of the hooligan returns : COMMENT

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The Independent Online
Following the violent outburst in Dublin last night, England cannot be regarded as a safe location for next year's European Championship.

Unquestionably, the scourge of hooliganism is back with the English game, smearing its reputation, gathering momentum in recent weeks, erupting so sickeningly at Lansdowne Road that a match involving the national team was abandoned because of crowd trouble for the first time in history.

The Irish, who behaved impeccably throughout last summer's world cup in the United States, were stunned by behaviour that had thousands of people - including small children -fleeing in terror.

The sight of it was disturbingly reminiscent of the 1980s, when lifelong football followers, fearing for their safety at English grounds, deserted the sport. If violence still simmered in the streets outside, it appeared to have been banished from our stadiums by improved facilities, the requirements of the Taylor Report, and expert policing.

Then in the 27th minute last night, shortly after the Republic of Ireland had taken the lead, it was back with us. The images were instantly of a full-scale riot. Seats were ripped from their stanchions and hurled on to the field and the supporters below, causing the Dutch referee, Dennis Jol, to take the teams off.

David Platt's appeal to the crowd in a wing of the west stand had no effect. It was ignored, the violence continuing unabated, officials struck down by missiles while others fled out of range.

The bad example set by Eric Cantona and Chelsea, who foolishly selected Dennis Wise for a cup replay against Millwall despite his conviction for assault and criminal damage, could be seen in the outrageous behaviour.

It has been argued recently that English football, corrupted by rampant commercialism and beset by evidence of sleaze, is lacking in responsibility.

Those in the game who feel no great obligation to society, those for whom profit is a god, should study closely the pictures of last night's violence: especially those of supporters still glowering at riot police an hour after the abandonment.

Innocent English supporters claimed afterwards that incompetence on the part of Irish officials and the police was largely to blame. They are missing the point. It is that previously there had been no reports of serious trouble at Lansdowne Road.

Even some of those who became verbally aggressive, advancing on the press box to defend their distorted version of the events, an unavoidable truth is that the trouble was triggered by David Kelly's goal. An excited Irish response brought about viciousness.

There is little substance to the argument that segregation of supporters as practised at English grounds would have prevented the incident. It ignores the more distressing aspects of the weekly experience in English football, the abuse of opposing players, the racism that festers at many of our grounds.

As a problem, hooliganism clearly remains beyond the best efforts of the authorities, but it asks a question of the clubs and their general attitude.

The worst elements among the English supporters last night showed no remorse for their behaviour. Aggression came to the surface again more than an hour after the game, when the crowd contained in the west stand began a fresh assault on the police and security forces.

Perhaps this will prove to be the last straw for Uefa, who are forced to consider the matter with the utmost seriousness.

An American sports columnist on assignment in the Republic, George Kimble, had never witnessed anything in his own country to match the disturbance. "Our worst behaved fans are amateurs compared with these people," he said.

"It reminded me of scenes at Wembley arena in London some years ago, when Marvin Hagler fought Alan Minter for the world middleweight championship. I was appalled by the behaviour of the English fans that night, but this was much worse. I'm not used to seeing people carried from sports stadiums on stretchers, and being struck down by missiles."

It is difficult to work out where English football goes from here. Far from being eradicated, hooliganism is once again becoming a serious problem for the game. The trouble at Stamford Bridge after Chelsea lost a cup tie to Millwall in a penalty shoot-out was too easily dismissed as an isolated incident.

If the problem is to be contained, the Football Association will have to act quickly. It will need to provide Uefa with explanations, to assure them that the European championship can be held without threat to supporters from abroad.

The stabbing to death of a fan in Italy recently that led to all sporting events being suspended the following weekend suggests that the problem is widespread, fuelled by right-wing groups and festering across the Continent of Europe.