Seeing through hysteria

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The Independent Online
HAVING closely studied a video recording and interviewed people who were present at the scene of alleged negligence, I am in a position to turn in an independent report on Sunday's crowd invasion at Maine Road.

Presumably, it took ordinary citizens a day or so to recover from the shock of the incident and to wonder what ought to be done.

Observing it through the lens of special authority, the instinct of administrators at the Football Association was immediately to brace themselves against the inevitable howl of public concern and get an inquiry under way. It was a sound instinct, because in the knee-jerk reaction of television and various popular prints there was a clear impression of overkill.

In the light of tragic history the alarm raised by events at Maine Road was understandable. However, and allowing that it carried serious implications for football in this country, there is no evidence to suggest that the incursion by a couple of hundred Manchester City supporters was a concerted attempt to violently bring about a replay of the FA Cup sixth-round tie which had seen their team outplayed by Tottenham Hotspur.

What started out as a fascinating match, full of expectation for both clubs, will unfortunately now be thought of as another blight on the game. But by no stretch of misgiving can it be spoken of as a near-tragedy.

Several Tottenham supporters who travelled to Manchester admit to having suspected a sinister motive. 'City were well beaten so it was only natural to suppose that all those people who disrupted the match were up to something,' one of them said. 'But later, when you gave it more rational consideration, that seemed less likely. The majority just wandered about the pitch, not appearing to know quite why they were there, and I can't say that I saw any of the old violence. I think they were simply fed up.'

On the grounds that it is well documented and was seen by millions on television, I have refrained from giving a detailed account of the incident but have rather let a picture form around what I believe to be the facts.

One troublesome possibility is that footballers, in their childish eagerness to fall triumphantly into the embrace of supporters, are encouraging them to come out and share in the disappointments.

As for the cliches that rained down on Maine Road - 'a mindless minority', 'the yobs are back', 'will they ever learn', let me acquaint you with an incident that occurred some years ago, long before the birth of this newspaper, when West Ham played Manchester United at Upton Park, in what used to be the First Division.

There was a full house, the crush in one corner of the ground becoming so great that after about 15 minutes a troubled section of the crowd spilled on to the pitch. There was no violence, only fear.

Not long afterwards I received a telephone call from my employers, who had been led to believe that a riot was taking place. They urgently requested details of injuries and arrests, and if it was possible, to contact the photographer and get him back quickly. Having set out the situation, emphasising that not a blow had been struck, I awaited further instructions. 'If it's happened don't play it down,' I was told. 'We've got it here in front us - riot at Upton Park.' 'Well, I've got it here in front of me,' I snorted before slamming down the telephone.

Much to make us fearful has happened since then, and as Sunday's incident unfolded before our eyes I thought with sudden vividness of other times and places. Was it beginning to happen all over again? Optimistically, I think not.

Any number of policemen will tell you that hooliganism hasn't gone away, that is still takes a great deal of diligence and effort to contain it.

But it would be premature to suppose that a new generation of hooligans is on the march, wrong to argue that fences should be restored. In the week that the last victim of Hillsborough was laid to rest, that surely is an obscene argument.

Once, there was in the minds of many people a doubt, frequently expressed, that English football would ever solve its most serious problem. It was probably a mistake when Manchester City chose to replace police with stewards. A much bigger mistake would be not to suppress quickly the idea that a pitched battle was fought last week at Maine Road.