Sport Soccer

Saturday 24 February 2018

James Lawton: Authorities have to ensure ugly scenes at West Ham do not become the norm

A West Ham fan lies on the ground as fans clash with police outside the stadium before the match. Photo: PA
A West Ham fan lies on the ground as fans clash with police outside the stadium before the match. Photo: PA
James Lawton

James Lawton

Along with Leicester City, English football plus a busload of Italian pilgrims had reason to celebrate the finding of a lost chord, a wonderful note of regained values to be acknowledged and honoured by both winners and losers.

How sad, then, that at West Ham the moronic fringe of the game's support should respond by digging up an old but still potentially fatal virus.

The temptation to over-state the scale of the damage beyond that dealt to the Manchester United team bus and the pre-match tempo of its passengers should probably be resisted. Still, there is also a duty to recognise that a relatively low reading on the old Richer Scale of mass football violence does not mean that the shameful conclusion of the Boleyn Ground's 112-year-history should not be seen for what it was.

It was a gut-wrenching reminder of the horrors that brought football, and notably the English game, so low in the 1970s and '80s and, even now it seems, still lurks in the DNA of some of its fans.

Most disturbing, in the entirely fortuitous absence of any loss of life or serious injury, was some of the reflex reactions to the attack on the United bus and the menacing chaos that reigned for a while in the East End streets. Some of them were dated back in the old days of lemming brutality.

West Ham's co-owner David Sullivan haplessly rushed to blame Manchester United's tardy arrival at the ground - despite the fact that perfunctory inquiries would have told him that the bus had been stranded for the best part of an hour while being bombarded by random missiles. He had to retract his nonsense quickly enough, and promise life bans for identified culprits when his club next season take up their sweetheart deal for the use of the taxpayer-funded Olympic Stadium.

Yet club vice-president Karren Brady, writing in 'The Sun' - the paper which so grotesquely mis-reported the Hillsborough tragedy - still managed to relegate the misdeeds, which flashed across a football world snapped out of its Leicester reveries, to the status of a minor eruption by a minority. There it was, the spine-chilling reminder of English football's first response to the tide of hooliganism. It was, of course, the work of a discountable minority. Yet the minority swelled into a huge and ugly threat to the health of the world's most popular game.

On live Italian television a reporter - part of a unit which had no doubt been recording the Leicester celebrations - had to abandon his broadcast because of the disdainful interference from malcontents at what Ms Brady chose to described as a "wonderful family occasion". It didn't look so wonderful in the parlours of Rome and Turin. It looked like a most disturbing re-stirring of old hates and anarchic enthusiasm.

No, we shouldn't exaggerate the scale of the West Ham eruption. But nor should it be put to bed with a pat on its behind. That was the approach which spawned the hellish years when cities were left aghast by the violence brought to their streets. Cities like Rotterdam in 1973, when 200 were injured when Spurs fans ran amok and manager Bill Nicholson went on the PA at the Feyenoord Stadium to say, "You people make me ashamed to be an Englishman."

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He might have said that the same had he been at Lansdowne Road as late as the mid-nineties when another 'minority' ransacked the old ground and spewed out its message of hate - and complete disinterest in what was happening on the field. Jack Charlton said that he was made sick to his stomach and who could not agree?

A few years later in Marseilles, when England played Tunisia in the World Cup and the old port was turned into a warzone filled with tear gas, the secretary of the FA, Graham Kelly, was asked if the violence would ever be cured. Wearily, he said that a solution was beyond him - 'short of massed executions'.

No-one can reasonably advocate the formation of firing squads to be marched into the East End but neither can the implications of what happened on Tuesday night be sensibly ignored. Brady spoke of a football paradise at the Olympic Stadium, a place where the family story of West Ham can be carried into a new phase of fulfilment.

Of course, there is a great tradition to be transported to the stadium which hosted a memorable Olympic Games. It is also true that since the sixties West Ham has occupied a special regard in English football. Under Ron Greenwood, it spawned a superior view of how the game should be played and in supplying the great Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters it made a huge contribution to the World Cup success in 1966. Success at the club level was more fleeting but always West Ham meant something more than the sum of its parts and extent of its success.

The Boleyn Ground was a place where football always had a meaning beyond the columns of winning and losing. In the tawdry reception given to Manchester United such values were betrayed - and English football cannot afford to ignore the warning.

Nothing less than life bans for those found guilty will do. The disease of hooliganism flourished because no one in the game - or in government - had the balls to counter it. Football said, it is not our problem - it was that of society. But then society could pull its curtains and watch television.

If a game trades on the communal, tribal passions of its supporters is has to be careful to guard its ready-made asset… and to police it with all the thoroughness it can command. Football is awash with money and no-one benefits more spectacularly than the players. So they too have a part to play, by the example of their conduct.

Sometimes that conduct lapses - and even at heroic Leicester, where the supernova Jamie Vardy spent the conclusive stage of the season under suspension, albeit controversially. Such breakdowns in discipline have in recent years been tempered by the assumption that the worst threat to the game, the chronic violence of the terraces and their surrounds, had become so rare it might have died.

This week it spluttered back to life. The demon, as a matter of urgency, has to be put back in its box.

Irish Independent

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