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Hooliganism: making a meal out of a melee

Despite the fighting at Hull City last week, the ‘English disease’ of football violence is largely a thing of the past.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

Did Jimmy Bullard really spark a riot at Hull City’s KC Stadium last week? Violence broke out at the FA Cup fourth round tie between Hull and Millwall on Saturday. Visiting fans ripped up security netting, hurled plastic seats and surged towards the Hull supporters.

Millwall fans indulging in a bit of argy-bargy? No surprise there. It’s their brand USP isn’t it? Ever since an infamous 1977 Panorama documentary, which immortalised the likes of Harry the Dog and F-Troop, Millwall has become a byword for football violence. So yes, ‘Millwall fans in trouble again’ is no big shock.

But Jimmy Bullard? The amiable midfielder with a 1970s hairstyle and a 1930s name is not your obvious figure of hate. Okay, he’s taken a bit of stick about his wage demands, but that’s no reason to start a ‘proper naughty tear up’ – as Danny ‘Football Factory’ Dyer might put it – over the guy. Yet, according to the Press Association, ‘the atmosphere was tense from the start when Hull paraded their new £5million signing Jimmy Bullard on the pitch. The former Fulham player was met by a chorus of boos from the Millwall fans’. Then the trouble kicked off. For the more curious or voyeuristic among you, check out the footage of the aggro on YouTube (1).

Cue lots of frothing outrage and handwringing from the great and the good. ‘This is certainly the worst incident since the KC Stadium opened’, said Chief Inspector Darren Downs who headed up the police operation at Hull. ‘This was like going back 10 years.’ The Football Association described the trouble as ‘one of the worst incidents of its kind for some time’. Hull chairman Paul Duffen was incensed. ‘There is no place for this kind of mindless hooliganism in football’, he said. ‘It is an ugly throwback to a bygone era which most clubs have long since eradicated from their culture.’

‘Disgraceful Millwall fans must be caged quickly’, screamed a Daily Mirror headline. ‘Any Millwall fans found guilty of hooliganism at Hull should be banned for life and given a stretch inside’, demanded the Mirror columnist Stan Collymore. Er… wait a minute. Yes, that’s right, Stan Collymore of dogging and Ulrika-slapping fame. An unlikely moral guardian, I’m sure you’ll agree. Bullard sparks a ruck and Collymore says lock ’em up. It’s a funny old game.

The crowd trouble at Hull invariably begs the question: has the ‘English disease’ of football hooliganism returned? Alternatively, as some argue, it might beg a different question: does this show that hooliganism never really went away? The answer is that football violence, although never completely eradicated, is a negligible problem in Britain. As Chief Inspector Downs acknowledged: ‘It is unusual nowadays for incidents of this nature to take place within a stadium.’ Downs believes that this might have been a once-a-year Millwall hooligan day out. ‘We understand that some groups who follow the club identify one match per season to cause serious trouble’, he said. ‘Last year, it was an FA Cup tie at Coventry on the same weekend.’ If that’s true, you’ve got to admire their resolute, old-school attitude. Forget cheap flights to Riga or Prague. Nah, Millwall fans enjoy nothing better than a day trip to Hull.

Bermondsey day trips apart, hooliganism isn’t a significant problem in this country. If you don’t believe me, have a gander at the latest Home Office football arrest statistics. There were 3,842 arrests in all football competitions involving English or Welsh teams during the 2007/8 season (2). Put another way, the total number of arrests represents 0.01 per cent of all spectators; an average of 1.21 arrests per match. In layman’s terms: bugger all.

According to the Home Office: ‘The last 4 years have seen the lowest number of football-related arrests since records began.’ Furthermore, if we look at the breakdown of those offences, we can see that arrests for violent disorder and missile throwing – what most of us would define as hooliganism – constituted just 11 per cent of the total. The arrest figures also include a large number of offences that do not involve violent conduct. For example, alcohol-related offences and ticket touting account for a third of all football arrests.

But, while crowd trouble is relatively rare, the fear of hooliganism is much more widespread. Even when violence inside football grounds was more prevalent in the 1970s and 80s, there was always a disparity between the reality and the inflated perception of hooliganism. Why? Firstly, even though the organised labour movement has been politically defeated, a residual fear of the mob still exists among the elites. Secondly, as with all classic moral panics, the public discussion of football hooliganism is part of a broader narrative of social breakdown. The tattooed, shaven headed football thug is a metaphor for moral decline.

In that sense hooliganism, however infrequently it occurs, will never really go away. It will always haunt the public imagination.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Footage of Hull/Millwall crowd trouble, YouTube

(2) Statistics on football-related arrests & banning orders, season 2007/8

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Topics Politics

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