Football’s looming missile crisis

HERE we go again. Football fans are back in the stadiums, the long and often heated debate about safe standing seems to be heading in the right direction for those that have been longing for the atmosphere of old and lo and behold, we have increased hooliganism to go with it. Yes, it is hooliganism, a nasty, invasive form of violence. 

This is not merely a case of cautious warnings like “be careful, that’ll have your eye out,” the throwing of objects at players is specifically designed to hurt and inflict damage on bodies. How long do we have to wait before a player’s eye is lost or something substantial knocks someone unconscious? This, the sport that goes out of its way to virtue signal whenever it can, the pastime where spectators are quick to declare their love of their club. Throwing lighters, bottles or anything they have to hand is considered OK, because the opposition have scored a goal, yet it’s cowardly, anti-social and drags down the name of the club and the game in general.

Over the decades, we’ve had all forms of deterrants to supress violence. The naïve often suggest violence is a thing of the past, but it’s always there, just below the surface, just as racism has always been there, waiting to find its release valve. It doesn’t take long to hear a group of people making a racist, sexist or homophobic comment the longer an evening goes on and the flow of alcohol becomes more potent. 

It’s no coincidence that in the past five years Britain seems to have rediscovered a form of nationalism that has been the catalyst for racism and anti-semitism. The resurgence of football hooliganism may be linked in some way. On the other hand, the repeated lockdowns and accompanying frustration this has brought could have something to do with this phenomenum. 

It’s a problem that is spreading, faster than we want to believe. The latest round of matches saw Aston Villa’s players struck by missiles after they had just scored against Everton at Goodison Park. Everton are having a bad time and it’s a club clearly unhappy with itself, but this was disgraceful and thankfully, the Police have grabbed the offenders. At Old Trafford, West Ham fans were apparently caught hurling items, while at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea’s Rüdiger was hit by disposable cigarette lighters. Similarly, at Arsenal, when Manchester City scored their late winner, their team was showered with objects. Like most things in football, when something becomes a trend, it is usually not long before grounds up and down the country have the problem. Furthermore, it’s not just players that will have to wary of flying bombs, other fans, be they men, women or children, could also be hit.

And this is all going to have consequences. Safe standing is being tested and so far, it appears to have been successful, but if fans continue to throw things, how easy would it be to blame the introduction of standing for the change in fan behaviour, even if there is no direct correlation?

The recent police report reveals that football-related arrests have risen by 47% since the start of the season and disorder has generally increased at games. Undoubtedly, there’s greater vigilance since the Euros when drunk fans stormed the barriers at Wembley.

With the pandemic already demanding greater pre-match preparations, increased security to ensure potential weapons are not taken into the stadium will mean more complications for matchday staff and those entering the arena.

Anyone who lived through the dark age of hooliganism and yearned for a more civilised experience will be hoping that we are not about to return to a less pleasant environment. Times have been tough for many people during the pandemic, but that’s no excuse to suddenly make football a game to be wary of once more. While missile throwing may be nothing more than a passing fad, we are turning back the clock a little. Wembley 2021 told us the mood might be changing, so let’s hope that’s not the case.

It’s Manchester City’s time, but eras of dominance have always existed

MANCHESTER CITY are now red hot favourites for the Premier League title and if the forecasts are accurate, it will be their fifth in 10 years and third in four campaigns. It is beginning to look like one-team dominance. But we have been there before, several times in fact since the Football League was inaugurated in 1888.

The big fear is, to quote the Carpenters’ wedding favourite, “we’ve only just begun”, and the era of City is now moving  in full stride after a decade of warm-up. In the 11 seasons since 2010-11 when City won the FA Cup, they have won 13 trophies, an impressive haul, but compare that to an 11-year stretch for Liverpool between 1975-76 and 1985-86. Their trophy collection was 18 (eight leagues titles, one FA Cup, four League Cups and five European prizes). Manchester United, between 1992-93 and 2002-03, won 11 trophies, including eight championships, and the first flourish at Chelsea under Abramovich, yielded 13 pieces of silverware between 2004-05 and 2014-15. 

Since Preston North End won the double in 1888-89, English football has been dominated, at various times, by Aston Villa, Newcastle United, Sunderland, Huddersfield Town, Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City. Others such as Sheffield Wednesday, Everton, Leeds United, Wolves and Tottenham have also shone brightly at times.

If the popular view is that City are now so far ahead of the competition that they will sweep-up in the years ahead, it is worth noting when assessing the relative strength of a team, there’s always an assumption the current situation will go on for ever. How often have teams been labelled “best ever” only to find they are human after all and they do eventually decline? Admittedly the situation City are in is somewhat unique, but not unique enough that others with lots of money cannot come along a build teams to challenge them.

Of the current 92 Premier/EFL teams, 43 have won major silverware, while every other team has won promotion at some point. There is not a single team that hasn’t experienced the joy of some form of success. Some have had to wait for it longer than others, some clubs have to go back over a century for their last big success. What is very clear is there is a greater level of concentration than in the past, with 73 of 87 domestic honours in the Premier League era going to the so-called big six, which represents an astonishing 84%.

Of the 2021-22 Premier League, Everton have not won a trophy or experienced promotion since 1994-95 when they lifted the FA Cup. No other club right across the 92 has had such a run, not even lower league clubs whose most notable achievement has been climbing out of the bottom tier. Only four clubs in the Premier have never won a pot, but three of those four – Watford, Crystal Palace and Brighton – have at least reached the FA Cup final and lost and all have won promotion in recent times.

Empires do not go on forever, they either run out money, lose their impetus or they get challenged by new kids on the block. Can anyone unseat Manchester City? Although they do look formidable and their financial advantages suggest a long period on the podium, there is no eternity in football. Who would have envisaged Liverpool going so long without a league title, or that Manchester United would fall from grace after Sir Alex Ferguson’s time? When Tottenham won the double in 1961, did anyone in that part of north London believe they would still be waiting for another league title in 2021? And what of Arsenal, so impressive in the early Wenger years, yet their position was gradually eroded over a decade or so. Furthermore, you look at clubs like West Ham (41 years without a cup), Wolves (ditto) and Newcastle (almost a century without a league title, 52 without any sort of silverware) and you realise these clubs have been pushed down the pecking order. There was a time when clubs like these could win things.

Manchester City will surely lead the way for a few years, but they will be challenged at some point, but let’s be clear, it will only be those with comparable resources, those they count as their peers. That’s a small band, but football being the industry it is, there is likely to be more rather than less clubs trying to join the elite, which won’t necessarily be a good thing for the game as a whole, but will further confirm the game has moved way beyond its relatively uncomplicated past.