The most glib response that one can give to the issue of football hooliganism is to say that it has simply gone away for good. Anybody that regularly goes to matches will know fully well that it is constantly there, bubbling away under the surface and waiting for an opportunity to raise its head. As clubs, the game’s authorities and the police themselves are often more than eager to tell us, the success that has been had in tackling the issue in and around stadia – the area in which there is no dispute that clubs have to take responsibility for the behaviour of those claiming to support the clubs – has been largely due to more sophisticated stewarding and policing methods. The days of penning people in, caging them up and hoping for the best ended with Hillsborough. Policing attitudes, they tell us, have changed.
Or did they? We’ve written on here about the police treatment of football supporters several times over the last three years, with incidents involving Stoke City and Sunderland supporters recently making headlines for police decisions that have given the impression of ranging from something approaching contempt for travelling supporters to decisions that have seemed to betray a lack of experience and complacency in dealing with potentially troublesome situations. It is not implausible to argue that these factors – contempt and complacency – were key factors in the Hillsborough disaster. The third key factor – a stadium which was fundamentally and with the benefit of hindsight obviously unsafe – is less of an issue these days. However, if reports from Millwall over the pre-match arrangements for their recent League Cup match are to be believed, somebody, somewhere has taken their eye off the ball, and the consequences were plastered all over the front pages of the next day’s newspapers.
Millwall have claimed that they were not invited to a meeting at West Ham United prior to the match. They claim that, mindful of the potential of this match to cause problems, they contacted West Ham about a meeting at Upton Park but were told that they wouldn’t be consulted. The meeting was to be held by the authorities but with no input with them, a decision which differs from the current convention of involving clubs at every step of the way. Millwall have almost unparalleled experience in dealing with this sort of situation. As any visitor to The New Den will know, their own ground is in the middle of a rabbit warren of streets in South-East London. In spite of this and the club’s reputation, they have had very few serious incidents either in or in the immediate vicinity of the ground in recent years.
What, then, did Millwall propose that might have changed what happened at Upton Park last week? There were three elements of the handling of the match that the club suggested needed to be changed. Their first suggestion was their most radical – moving the kick-off to an earlier time during the day. There would have undoubtedly been complaints from people unable to attend the match, but this would have been counterbalanced by giving people less time to drink and the being played in the daylight (which would have made policing outside the ground easier). It is unlikely that anyone would have agreed to this. It’s also worth remembering that the number of what one would describe as hardcore “hooligans” is relatively small. Where a small fight turns into something approaching a riot comes with residual potential troublemakers, who won’t necessarily start a fight but will certainly wade in if one starts nearby. Make it more difficult for these people – make them book a day off work, cut the amount that they can drink and so on – and the likelihood of serious incidents starts to fall away.
Their second suggestion was to close pubs around the ground on the evening of the match. This, again, would be an unpopular move and would prejudice people and businesses that had nothing to do with causing any problems. However, pubs remain problem areas, in terms of policing, being places that people can drink in and still being focal points for people looking for a fight. As things turned out, a pub called The Queens near Upton Park turned out to be where some of the most serious trouble of the evening took place.
Their third suggestion was to offer Millwall more tickets for the match. This may seem, upon first sight, to be somewhat perverse. More away supporters would, according to base logic, mean more trouble, wouldn’t it? Well, probably not. Millwall were entitled, under the rules of the League Cup, to a ticket allocation of almost 6,000 tickets. They had requested 3,000 to sell to season ticket holders only, but had received only 1,500. This was the only suggestion that they made that was acted upon, and they had their allocation of tickets increased to 2,300 , but the problem had already been exacerbated. If rumours start to do the rounds that tickets are not going to be available, then people will travel in the hope of getting one from a tout. If, from the start, it had been absolutely clear that tickets would be available to season ticket holders and that no-one else would get in, it may have limited the number of people that travelled up to the match.
As football matches go, West Ham United against Millwall in the League Cup was always likely to cause some logistical difficulties and, to an extent, it is reasonable to argue that any policing of this match was going to be a damage limitation exercise. However, if the claims made by Millwall Football Club are correct, then the Metropolitan Police, the Football Licensing Authority and even the Football League have some uncomfortable questions to answer: why weren’t Millwall invited to discuss arrangements with them before the match? Why were they not allocated the tickets that they were entitled to and had requested? And why, ultimately, were none of their suggestions used. They may not have worked, but things could hardly have gone much worse on the night than they did.