Football’s violent “Dark Old Days” have not returned

police football fans - stringberdAs violence broke out in Wembley and the North-East, the inevitable question was once again dragged out by the media to fill phone-in lines of impassioned fans desperate to recount their stories of the past. The “Dark Old Days” seems to be the buzz-phrase on articles and discussion columns. In asking the question whether English football could be hauled back into the abyss of football hooliganism of the 70s and 80s, the press are somewhat desperately trying to conjure up vivid images of blood and mass brawls to ratchet up interest levels and website hits.

Put simply, these are false. English football has come a long way from some of the terrible scenes that were commonplace on terraces across the country and it is unlikely to ever return there. Ask anyone who has been involved in the policing of both eras and they will tell you exactly that. We took the trouble of doing so and Steve Kemsley, a retired Met Police superintendent who now works with companies that model crowd behaviour and advises on the staging of major football tournaments around the world, is adamant that such speculation is nonsensical.

“If you want to see how far it has improved, if you go to the Champions League final at Wembley in a couple of weeks’ time there will be very little police presence at all; there will be a reserve unit but hardly any police in the stands. Five years ago even that would have been unthinkable. It’s really quite a dramatic improvement.

“The figures speak for themselves – more women now attend football, more children now attend football, revenues are up massively, businesses want to invest and sponsor clubs.”

Kemsley believes that not only is the UK no longer synonymous with hooliganism, but it is in fact within the top three countries in the world when it comes to crowd safety and management. So what has changed from the ghost of football’s past? Why the dramatic turnaround and what has been learned and improved upon?

“The advantage we have now is that in the 70s and 80s British football was at the bottom of the pile so it had to improve. We had to learn from the tragedies of Hillsborough, Bradford, Heysel and others. Football was in a mess then.

“By working closely with the FA, clubs, stadium designers and the fans themselves we have built up a good rapport, working out the best ways to deal with these incidents.

“You now have intelligence units that work out how to manage behaviour and the legislation has changed as well. Football banning orders now mean that you can ban troublesome people from attending football matches in the UK and they have to go and report to a police station whilst the football is being played.”

Is it fair then, that after just one weekend of trouble and one isolated incident, the police have again been criticised for their slow response to the fighting at the Millwall game in particular? Clearly hooliganism is still an issue, even if fans are no longer taking their life into their own hands every time they go through the turnstiles. Kemsley agrees that there is always room for improvement but denies that the police should be scapegoated.

“At the [Millwall] game it was a very late kick off so people would have been drinking since say lunch time and walking to the stadium there probably would have been some issues. The police came out from under the stand to deal with them and in fact they dealt with them very quickly. It was a very isolated incident.”

At this point my mind was cast back to the innumerable times that access to Bridge has been denied to the students of this university for being “over the limit”. Surely security at football games should be of a higher standard than the heavies they bring out to bar our way into Oxford’s night clubs?

If a weedy-looking Oxford student can be refused entry to a club for potentially hazardous drinking, then is it so far-fetched to turn away a hulking 6ft skinhead from what is and should remain a place for families to enjoy their weekend? But the former superintendent is clear on the need for objectivity and practicality on the issue of a clampdown on alcohol at football.

“The two are different for legal reasons. At football, it is an offence to enter a designated ground whilst drunk, but there is a need to prove the offence by the police officer to a court. The laws around alcohol at football have changed. If you are on the bus to the game you are not allowed to be drinking, if you are in the ground you are not allowed to have a drink in sight of the playing area. But most of the people at the Millwall game  would have been drinking at pubs all over London and you cannot control that. How do you say that someone is clearly drunk, when they are walking it quite normally and leisurely? You can’t breathalyse people coming in.”

It is a fair point. You don’t have to be stumbling all over the place to have had enough alcohol to make you violent and essentially it is down to the person consuming the alcohol as opposed to how much they have actually drunk. But maybe it is an issue to consider.

Alcohol is and always has been potentially lethal within crowds where tension is running high. It should not be the case that these outbreaks of violence, however infrequent, should continue to grab the headlines rather than the football.