It was Ted Croker who told Mrs Thatcher the blunt, uncomfortable truth about hooliganism.
In the crisis meeting after Heysel, Thatcher asked what was to be done about football's hooligans. Croker, then Chief Executive of the FA, is said to have curtly replied: "these people are society's problem, and we don't want your hooligans in our sport, Prime Minister."
The quote has been romanticised, no doubt, but it rings true this week, following the assault on Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper Chris Kirkland by a renegade Leeds United fan. Member of a (largely congratulatory) crowd, he may have been, but Aaron Cawley remains one idiot in a society which has plenty going spare. He has now been jailed for 16 weeks, but that he chose to exact his idiotic coup de grace at a football match does not mean that football is responsible for it.
Which is why, at the end of the day, it is probably best to be reluctantly dismissive of the shaken goalkeeper's calls for greater security at football matches. Kirkland and other professionals voiced concern over the plausible eventuality that the next idiot to run onto a pitch could be armed. While their fears are understandable, their suggestions are far-fetched. Cawley or any of society's hooligans are just as likely – indeed more likely – to be armed in the street as they are at an organised sporting event. That doesn't mean police should increase the number of stop searches they perform in Leeds city centre.
No, Cawley's is a case for the courts. Its repercussions for English football as a whole will, and should, be minimal. His moment of folly is not cause for nationwide concern.
It has, however, served to neatly expose one of the great, self perpetuating myths of our national game: that misbehaviour amongst fans is a thing of the past. While Alan Smith, who was commentating on the Leeds game, may believe that "some morons have still survived from way back when in the days of hooliganism and thuggery", he would be well advised to remember that the time period he is referring to is only a few decades past.
After two major disasters brought the game to its knees, English football convinced itself, (along with many other untruths), that the shiny, new, family friendly Premier League has rid English football of all its problems.
There is something hideous about the fact that the sport of the working class should take such pride in the Thatcherian notion that, if you hitch up prices and blame the uneducated masses, violence and disorder will simply go away.
They have not gone away. Just ask the innocent, non-violent fans of West Ham and Millwall who have had to endure the dangerous behaviour of their fellow supporters in various East London derbies in recent years. The behaviour of those fans at a League Cup fixture in 2009 are testament to the fact that getting rid of standing tickets and hiking up prices doesn't stop society's idiots throwing bottles when they want to.
Verbal thuggery, moreover, remains as prevalent as ever. No matter how much we may have improved, the safe, anonymity of the football stadium remains the ideal platform for an entire plethora of racist, sexist, homophobic and threatening language, often hurled at specific targets on the pitch or in the dugout, as Sheffield Wednesday manager Dave Jones found out when Leeds fans gleefully, and slanderously, reminded him of the child abuse allegations of which he was cleared in 2000.
In any other public situation, a huge portion of what is sung and said in the heat of a football crowd would be not only roundly condemned but, in some cases, classed as a criminal offence. For no one knows better than the football supporter how best to incite hatred.
The grim truth of the matter is, the behaviour of football fans is largely unpoliceable. Worse, the methods with which we so proudly claim to have policed it are relatively ineffective. German football has kept standing terraces, low prices and alcohol in the stands, and its hooliganism problems have dropped just as much as England's. Even the controversial groups of "Ultras" are, by and large, able to involve themselves in official debates about the rights and responsibilities of the football fan. They are a far cry from Aaron Cawley.
If English football is really to protect the likes of Chris Kirkland and prevent these things from happening again, it needs to wake up first. It needs to stop patting itself on the back and proudly bragging of its self-endowed title of Best League In The World, and confront problems like the Yorkshire Derby in a mature, and critical manner. Chants like the ones directed at Dave Jones need to be exposed, not shoved under the carpet as dangers to the status quo of self satisfaction.
If the Hillsborough Inquiry has taught us one thing, it is that the legacy of football hooliganism in England is still one surrounded by lies, misconceptions and self-deceit. So let us open the debate properly, and accept that fan misbehaviour is a real, actual problem, not a relic from way back when.Reuse content