Remember the good old days? Remember when you'd turn on the TV and some god-forsaken British fan had stabbed a Turkish fan to death in the name of football. Remember when West Ham versus Millwall used to mean something, I mean really mean something? A pint, a few penalties and some pugilism. Oh, and if you were lucky a bottling, or stabbing or strangling and a few arrests and hospitalisations and while you're at it why not throw some racism in there as well. I mean why not?
Well there's plenty of reasons why not, not that Lexi Alexander's supremely stupid film Green Street would have had it that way. In 2004 football hooliganism was dying a death. Since then films like Green Street, The Football Factory, The Firm, Cass and Awaydays have sought to recapture the now rather by-gone era of football hooliganism with varying levels of condemnation and (in Green Street's brains to the wall case of idiocy) nostalgia.
You see the England team are now safely home after crashing out of the Euros on penalties, again, but the oddest thing of all is that there's been little violence, no substantial cases of racism and no notable arrests to speak of. Just whatever happened to the all of the idiocy, the stupidity and most of all, the hooliganism? Where have the hooligans gone? Are they hiding? Are they currently engaged in some sort of high level technological experimentation preparing sophisticated mech-suits for an apocalyptic showdown at the 2023 FA Cup final? Most worrying for fans of fatuousness everywhere, have they somehow educated themselves, leaving the life behind them forever?
On the domestic scene hooliganism has been in decline ever since its peak in the 1980's. The notorious 'firms' that proliferated in the 70s and 80s rose at a time when football was becoming an increasingly metro-sexual pursuit (if the players were anything to go by). Gone were the heady days of Ron "Chopper" Harris and his glorious display of shin kicking in the 1970 FA Cup Final, now everyone was fashionable and well presented. The man with a moustache that nobbled a thousand knees, Graeme Souness, was still "keeping it hetero" on the pitch but the majority of players were now rocking mullets, perfectly preened perms and shorts so tight one could reasonably (if not accurately) accuse pretty much everyone of "plum smuggling" or on colder days "blueberry bootlegging". These were dark times for the übermensch amongst the stands so one can only assume that they overcompensated by forming into gangs and kicking seven shades of stupid out of each other. Well, of course that's not strictly true. There was probably a whole surfeit of underlying social problems as well. The 70s and 80s it seems was just the right time and place to go down the football and stick your fist in a face.
Reaching its peak in the riots following a Luton versus Millwall match in 1985, Ted Croker, head of the FA at the time, was summoned to see Margaret Thatcher and pretty soon the police were sticking their oar in. After the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 stadiums became all-seated affairs and, further hampering the hooligans cause, widespread CCTV coverage meant that if you were planning on sticking a broken bottle in the head of an opposing fan within range of the stadium you'd likely be seen and dealt with accordingly.
Nowadays arrests at domestic football matches are falling year on year and hooliganism continues its thankful descent into obscurity. Nevertheless as Home Office statistics show football fans aren't altogether afraid of a bit of a fracas. The fans of east end clubs continue to feed the stereotype of the loutish cockney thug but as the statistics show it's still only a terrifically small percentage of fans that seek to ruin it for everybody. Out of 13,406,990 attendances in the 2010-2011 season of the Premier League there were only 1,191 arrests, the majority of which were for public and not violent disorder (although one can only assume that a bit of a cockney knees up is what they were building up to before they were rudely interrupted by the law).
Policing seems to be the key here. You can't reasonably think that Britain has stopped producing morons now can you? Amongst the more recent (although thankfully declining) trends of 'monkey-chanting' and British violence abroad before, during and after European matches one can easily discern that the fighting and hate was just taken elsewhere, be it to the stands or to foreign countries. But football violence isn't a purely English phenomenon. Poland is now the football hooliganism capital of Europe. Organised into gangs that train, co-ordinate and plan their fights with a military precision, the terraces have become a breeding ground for cultivating violent supporters of the Polish far-right. But even now they tend to take their fights to the forest or the underground. Fans still want to punch the team colours off of their opponents backs (and possibly punch a few new ones in), but now they just do it hidden from view, like a skinhead version of Fight Club. Rule 1 of Football Club: You do not talk about Football Club.
So however they've done it, this summer the Polish authorities - as have the British in the domestic arena - have done a solid job with removing hooliganism from our matches, if not entirely (one only has to look at the violence in Warsaw ahead of Poland versus Russia to see that). Nevertheless it's now thankfully rare to open a newspaper and read of a football related murder, something that even my 21 year-old self can remember doing not too long ago.
The English hooligan has been neutered by the police to the point that he can seemingly no longer get it up on match day. Whether that be through force of disincentive or direct police intervention the hunters have become the hunted when entering through the turnstiles.
Perhaps now more than ever then we can watch England or our chosen club lose in peace, safe in the knowledge that our enjoyment won't be hampered by anything other than the appalling lack of prowess shown by our players. Hooliganism may not be dead, but it is leaving the stadiums, and as small victories go I think that's a pretty big one.
Follow Ross Jones-Morris on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@rossjonesmorris
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