Page last updated at 15:20 GMT, Wednesday, 26 August 2009 16:20 UK

Hooliganism rears its ugly head

Fans at Upton Park
Violence erupted both inside and outside West Ham's stadium

By Andy McFarlane
BBC News

Violence surrounding Millwall's visit to West Ham in the second round of football's Carling Cup has led to 13 arrests. Should we fear the return of hooliganism?

Pitched battles with police, groups of angry young men chasing rivals through city streets and drunken violence on public transport.

Such scenes were familiar to many attending football matches through the 1970s or 1980s, with the game at a low ebb and attendances plummeting.

It is a far cry from the image projected by England's Premier League today, when many of the world's best players perform in packed all-seater stadia around the country.

The police are constantly trying to stop groups of supporters fighting each other but it usually takes place away from football stadia
Dr Geoff Pearson
University of Liverpool

With a global TV audience of millions, it is a lucrative export. There is a lot to lose should the game's reputation be tarnished.

So it is unsurprising that Tuesday night's scenes at West Ham's Upton Park prompted the sport's stunned authorities to launch an investigation.

Still, pointing to falling arrest rates at matches over 20 years, they insist troublemakers are a rogue minority.

For the University of Liverpool's Dr Geoff Pearson, the West Ham trouble does not represent a resurgence of the high-profile clashes of the past.

But, he says, while the annual number of arrests dropped from more than 6,000 in the mid-80s to fewer than 4,000 now, the problem has never really gone away.

"The police are constantly trying to stop groups of supporters fighting each other but it usually takes place away from football stadia - between railway stations and pubs."

Shocking images

Greater regulation of matches and ticketing policies requiring names and addresses have made it easier to identify troublemakers, who can be banned from matches for up to 10 years by courts.

For this reason, Dr Pearson says the images of fans invading the Upton Park pitch were almost more shocking than the more serious violence happening outside.

But the author of Football Hooliganism: Policing and the War on the English Disease adds: "I don't think we need to be worried about going back to the dark days of hooliganism."

While gangs with football allegiances still organise violence, the numbers involved are smaller. Away from the grounds, fewer fans are likely to be drawn in, he says.

This was probably the highest risk match in England
Sports sociologist John Williams

Sports sociologist John Williams agrees that trouble at one game does not represent a resurgence in football violence.

But he says it would be dangerous to think we are in a "post-hooliganism era", particularly for fixtures with a history of violence.

Fan websites suggest the rivalry between West Ham and Millwall pre-dates their clubs, to the days when the areas' respective ironworks competed for contracts.

It developed into open hostility, it is said, during the 1926 general strike when Millwall dockers continued to work while those in the East End went out.

Mr Williams, of the University of Leicester, says the danger is that rivalries like this - which erupted into violence in the 1970s - can be reignited.

"This was probably the highest risk match in England," he says.

However, he says clubs and police have learned to prepare for such fixtures - citing bans on away fans during recent Swansea-Cardiff clashes.

Other tactics include limiting attendance to season ticket-holders and bringing forward kick-off times, he says, acknowledging that this may not sit well with clubs trying to maximise revenue.

Cup problems

As is common among Premier League clubs, West Ham reduced ticket prices for the Carling Cup match. However, sales were restricted to those who had bought tickets in the past.

West Ham initially offered Millwall an allocation of 3,000 tickets, only for it to be halved by the Metropolitan Police.

Millwall complained that their fans might try to get in the West Ham sections and received a further 800 tickets. All were restricted to season ticket holders.

But Mr Williams believes cup games present clubs with extra problems: "People are often not in their usual seats. It's an opportunity for [troublemakers] to sit together."

Non-regulars have less to lose in causing trouble because they have no season ticket to confiscate and a banning order will not impact on them in the same way.

Fans and police
Police have learned to prepare for highly-charged fixtures

"When you have a rivalry like that between West Ham and Millwall, then guys will come 'out of retirement'," he says.

"They don't even have to go to the game because most of what happens goes on outside."

Despite the proliferation of fans' internet message boards, Mr Williams says many are simply used as decoys for police.

It does not take "sophisticated militaristic gang leaders" to organise trouble, he says.

"It only takes a couple of people with mobiles to let people know the police are in one place and they should divert elsewhere," he says.

Exactly why people get involved in hooliganism is difficult to explain but Mr Williams says many are attracted by the "sheer excitement".

"A lot of these guys have grown up in closely-bound neighbourhoods, been involved in local gangs and their upbringing has led them to believe in standing up for their themselves and being loyal to their locality.

"It's indicative of our culture. Britain produces men who go into city centres and fight. The biggest stage [on which] you can do that, as they see it, is football."

The majority of today's fans are rarely confronted with hooliganism. A 2000 Premier League survey revealed only one in five had seen trouble and 28% worried about it.

So, for Football Supporters Federation chairman Malcolm Clarke, while Tuesday's violence was shocking, it must be kept in perspective.

"Anybody who goes regularly to football matches and has done for 20 or 30 years... is in no doubt that the amount of disorder is far less than it was," he says.

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