Glen Kirton, tournament director of Euro 96, admits that while he is confident that the huge decline in hooliganism at the modernised grounds where this summer's matches are to be played will be reflected inside the stadiums, he is less sure about trouble in the cities. His doubts are confirmed by the Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research, whose spokesman, John Williams, said: "While the figures show a dramatic decrease in arrests at club matches, the England situation is different.
"If the crime rate in the country had gone down by over 20 per cent, as it has in league football, the police would never stop telling us about the success. But when it comes to the national situation, that's entirely different. Trouble among club supporters who go abroad is much reduced, but England has become a national club for people who may not even watch club football regularly. The symbol of nationalism is attractive to certain people. We haven't made as much progress as with club teams."
He believes that holding Euro 96 in England could save the tournament from the worst of the problems seen when England play abroad because "it's more difficult to get motivated for trouble on your own patch". However, he added: "My feeling is that while we should be concerned about the German fans here, mainly we should look to what could happen in our big cities if England get knocked out early while the fans of other teams remain."
Kirton says he is not washing his hands of possible problems in the cities. "We have spent a lot of time exchanging intelligence with our police and those abroad. Our ticketing arrangement means that only the person buying a ticket can use it, and so be identified, but we realise that we have to be involved in problems not in the stadiums." Indeed, evidence gathered so far suggests that many of the potential troublemakers are simply planning street violence. "These," Williams said, "are the usual extreme, politically motivated people."
The improvement at club level is a direct result of the Taylor Report, but only by coincidence. Lord Justice Taylor demanded all-seater stadiums and violence faded but only as a by-product of his demands. Rebuilt, smaller stadia greatly reduced room for away supporters, whose presence traditionally led to violence.
Williams said that trouble is comparatively rare at modern Premiership grounds but remains a problem lower down the divisions where away support is less restricted. Recent incidents have occurred mainly when England play away, when clubs play in Europe or where away supporters are unlimited and unrestricted. Also the nature of hooliganism has altered. These days it often seems directed more against rival managers and players than supporters.
Spitting and swearing at officials as they enter and leave grounds has become commonplace. There have been incidents involving attacks on players at Birmingham and Villa Park, and, unlikely as it seems, crowd trouble at Brentford in an Auto Windscreens Shield match and even at non-League Stevenage. But the list is tiny by the unruly standards of the past.
Williams said: "Things have changed radically. Every other crime trend over the past 10 years is in the other direction or shows only a tiny improvement. In the mid-Eighties arrests were over 7,000 when crowds were 17 million. Now crowds are up to 21 million and arrests are below 4,000 a season." That good news could all be undone by a few Union Jack-draped neo-fascists in the streets this summer.