The League Cup Second Round is probably the least inspiring week of the early part of the new season. In front of swathes of empty tip-up seats, youth and reserve team players half-heartedly play out matches that no-one really wants to be involved in. On the pitch tonight, West Ham United won this match. After falling behind to a first half goal, West Ham took until three minutes from what should have been the end of normal time before finding an equaliser before winning the match with two goals in extra time. A less than inspiring night’s work, then, for West Ham, but they are at least through to the next round. Millwall, on the other hand, can head off to their corner of east London with a shred of pride still intact, having they managed to push a Premier League club to within an inch of its League Cup life.
That’s not what you’re here for, though, is it? You’re here to either to see me bang on in the manner of a retired army general, waffling through my walrus moustache about bringing back National Service and the birch like Stanley Rous on valium, or to see me getting furiously over-excited about a few hundred Danny-Dyer-a-likes throwing wanker signs at each other and charging at each other, lobbing coins around. There are rumours circulating that this has been more vicious hooliganism than has been seen in English football for quite a few years, and it is being reported that one man has been stabbed, but it’s hardly worth dwelling upon the details of what did or didn’t happen, who did or didn’t do what to whom and whose “fault” it is. Let’s just leave it that everybody involved, from both sides, are idiots. There’s not much more to say about them than that.
What, though, can be done to prevent such occurrences? Some have said that problems were caused by Millwall supporters not being allocated enough tickets for tonight’s match, but this doesn’t explain West Ham supporters invading the pitch more than once throughout the match, and it also doesn’t explain what appears to have been hundreds of Millwall supporters travelling without tickets in the first place. In a situation in which both sets of supporters seemed set, before, during and presumably after the match, on causing trouble, trying to deflect the blame onto the authorities seems to be a pointless exercise. Proclamations of innocence will fall upon deaf ears tonight.
In other parts of the country, such matches are treated something like military operations. Fans with tickets are bussed in and out, with railway stations and pubs that could cause flashpoints being closely monitored. In London, this is almost impossible logistically, especially on weekday evenings, when tens of thousands of people are travelling home from work through areas that are nothing even to do with the match. It is a nonsense that anywhere or anyone should have to put up with this. The police hardly deserve any awards tonight, either, though. It was obvious that trouble would flare up at this match, and this was confirmed by the high police presence before the match. Ultimately, if there is trouble – no matter what the culpability of the two groups of supporters concerned – they have also failed in their duty.
For the rest of us, the big concern is that the authorities will use this – extremely rare – outbreak of trouble as a reason to beat the rest of us over the head with. Don’t think they won’t – consider the police’s recent “liberal” application of Section 27 of the 2006 Violent Crime Reduction Act – and this is the cost of the behaviour of West Ham and Millwall supporters tonight. They may have made it all a bit worse for the rest of us. Not that any of those concerned would be likely to care very much. On top of this, the hang ‘em and flog ‘em brigade and the hooligan footage self abusers will dominate the airwaves, filling our brains with a mixture of 1980s Conservative politics and the soundtrack to “Green Street 5 – Dave Has A Fight Outside A Pub”. Ultimately, though, there are no easy solutions to the problem of hooliganism, when it raises its head. For Millwall, however, the problem seems to be intractable. Perhaps it needs their ordinary supporters – the ones that don’t get involved in this, of which there are thousands – to stand up and be counted. The Football League can throw West Ham United – whose supporters probably behaved worse tonight, at least inside the ground – out of this year’s League Cup and the Premier League could make them play a couple of matches behind closed doors. Such damage to the reputation of their brand might make the club think a little harder about what they can do about this sort of incident in the future.
Edit: One final thought. Our sympathies tonight are with Jack Collison, the young West Ham United player whose father was killed in a road accident at the weekend. Collison, showing exceptional bravery and fortitude, played this evening during a time that most of us cannot even imagine having to go through. He deserved better than the scenes that he witnessed this evening.