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.

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be

I RECENTLY entered a football ground for the first time since early March, but it was not to see a match, it was to take part in a tour of Tottenham Hotspur’s outstanding new stadium. This remarkable structure, which resembles a space ship landing in urban north London, is arguably the best arena I have been inside, in both the UK and abroad. Until it was opened in 2019, Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium was probably the best, but now this part of the capital has two of the best football grounds in Europe. 

As our party walked round, even the oldest “I’ve seen it all” Spurs fan had to admit that this slick, futuristic building was impressive, but one White Hart Lane veteran, who had donned his best clothes to pay homage to the stadium, still claimed the old ground, the stage for so many great nights in the club’s history, will forever be the best. 

It’s popular among fans of a certain age to hanker for the “good old days”, but what was so marvellous about the football experience of the 1970s and 1980s? Certainly, going to a match back then was very different than it is today. It’s safer now, for a start. Increasingly, people are calling for a return of the terraces and some clubs, Tottenham being one, are factoring this in to their ground plans.

I could name a dozen aspects of going to the match that are much better today than they were in the 1970s: catering, toilets, comfort, exits and access points, pitches and spectator safety. Crowd trouble inside a ground is rare compared to those feral days. One of my first games after leaving school was an Anglo-Scottish Cup tie at Chelsea when Bristol City were the visitors. As I made my way to the North Stand turnstiles, a scuffle broke out between a Chelsea and Bristol City fan. It ended with the former stamping on the face of the latter and the Chelsea lad screaming “leave him, leave him”. Minutes later, an ambulance arrived and ferried the casualty away. As a 16 year-old, I was shocked and it really set the tone for the next five years of following Chelsea home and away. I could never relax on matchdays. There was always an air of tension. Not so today, at least it is not as visible.

Like many fans who frequented the terraces, there were times when urine flowed down the steps like a burst water pipe. Indeed, with very few toilets and very spartan conditions in those that existed, it was not unusual to see fans emptying their bladders in a corner of the standing area.

Terrace life could be brutal. Notwithstanding the occasions when a visiting club’s fans would try and “take” the home end, there was a mercenary approach to getting your best spot on the crumbling concrete steps. Don’t be fooled by stories of a united mass of supporters looking out for each other, you could quite easily get a clout from your own fans when that sea of humanity started to move. Take a look at some of the TV footage from the mid-1960s and you’ll see Anfield’s organic Kop singing Beatles songs and moving in unison with the action on the field. I was in Chelsea’s last 60,000 crowd at Stamford Bridge in November 1970 against Tottenham and I remember to this day my feet being stranded in mid-air for much of the game. When you’re 12 it’s all very exciting, but imagine that today – it just wouldn’t be allowed.

Back in the 1970s, getting away from a ground could take a while given most London Underground stations had small entrances. Upton Park station, for example, was hopelessly inadequate, while getting into Fulham Broadway was a game of push and shove all the way along Fulham Road. Crowds are better marshalled today, even though we rarely appreciate the logistics of dispersing thousands of people in a timely and efficient fashion.

I recounted to that blazer-wearing White Hart Lane nostalgist that I was present when Spurs won the 1972 UEFA Cup against Wolves and how our coach, which had come from Grays in Essex, had been jammed in the traffic for miles. I liked White Hart Lane and the atmosphere it created on big matchdays, but the old ground looked tired, had fallen behind other new constructs and was no longer fit for purpose before it was demolished. I would wager the new ground has better sight lines, better access points, considerably improved catering and overall, will provide a better customer experience. Cloth cap nostalgia may be a popular pastime for those with rose-tinted spectacles, but the days of corrugated metal, damp wood and rusty roofs have long gone. Want a glimpse of the future? Take a trip to Tottenham Hotspur’s gleaming new home. I did, and it was good to be in a stadium once more!

Photo: PA

@GameofthePeople

This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine.