What to make, then, of the events at Kenilworth Road this afternoon? On the one hand, there are plenty of plenty of supporters of other clubs in the Blue Square Premier that seem to hold the viewpoint that serious crowd trouble at a Luton match has been something that has been waiting to happen for some considerable time. However, although finding more precise documentary evidence for this is obviously difficult, the links between the extreme end of the club’s support and various unsavoury political organisations has been noted elsewhere on plenty of occasions and talk of minor disturbances at Luton matches this season has not been uncommon. Was it a major surprise that there should be significant crowd trouble after a Luton home defeat in a play-off match? The unfortunate answer to this is no, probably not.
Still, however, even if there were hundreds of people involved in scenes that cannot be condoned in any way whatsoever (and the predictable claims and counterclaims about what happened this afternoon will undoubtedly go into overdrive over the next few days), the picture is less clear-cut than simply being a matter of shouting for massive points deductions, fines or throwing the club out of football altogether. There will be many thousands of Luton supporters – far more than were involved in any trouble this afternoon – that will have been appalled by what went on at Kenilworth Road this afternoon, and that will be shocked and embarrassed by their club’s name being dragged through the mud in such a public way.
More troubling still is that this is the fourth incident of crowd trouble at an English football match in the last three days. On Saturday, Grimsby Town supporters had to separated from Barnet supporters at the end of their League Two match whilst, at the Ryman League Premier Division play-off final between Boreham Wood and Kingstonian, the away club have launched an official complaint after their captain, Francis Duku, was punched in the face by a spectator. Add to these incidents the trouble at the end of yesterday’s match between Sheffield Wednesday and Crystal Palace and this afternoon’s antics, and English football has had a pretty grim Bank Holiday weekend.
Quite how to prevent it from happening again is an intractable problem. The number of police and stewards on the pitch at the end of, for example, the Grimsby match would seem to indicate that such behaviour can only be contained by increased stewarding and policing rather than actively discouraged by it and that extra policing and stewarding is not the panacea that some may consider them to be. To this extent, perhaps only a change in the culture of the crowd itself can have an affect that makes matches safer to attend in the long term. However, asking supporters to police other people present at matches could cause as many problems as it solves and, in any case, is easier said than done when we’re talking about dozens or hundreds of people rather than the occasional idiot.
What we know for certain is that calls for tighter measures against ordinary football supporters must be resisted at every turn, and that they will come. What needs to be done is that the clubs themselves, the police and the game’s authorities need to ensure that as many of those involved are banned from the game for good. It is more than merely possible that this may only move the trouble out of the crowds and onto the streets. After all, the urge, for a certain type of person, to fight for the sake of fighting seems be almost hard-wired into the DNA. However, their determination to fight and be obnoxious shouldn’t mean that it shouldn’t be made as difficult as possible for them to do so.
Interviewed on the radio and by television crews earlier this evening, though, the Luton chairman Nick Owen didn’t do himself or his club any favours by attempting to play down an incident that had already been shown live on the television, and this sort of denial problem is something that most definitely is an echo to the “see no evil, hear no evil” attitude that those in charge of clubs seemed to hold as behaviour in and around grounds deteriorated throughout the 1970s and the early 1980s. The urge to wish to defend one’s own club may be a difficult one to overcome, but Owen’s comments may even cause the club more problems than they solve. The FA will be likely to launch an enquiry into today’s events and the sanction that they end up deciding upon may well be at least in part decided by the attitude of the club concerned.
Quite what such a sanction would or should be is open to question. Supporters of other Blue Square Premier clubs might be hoping for a points deduction for a Luton side that will be expected to challenge for the title again next season, but there is little precedent to suggest that they will be anything other than disappointed if this is their hope. A fine is likely and having to play one or more matches behind closed doors next season is possible. This, of course, will not really punish those concerned in the actual trouble itself, but the club itself cannot take any action itself against them. That will be left to the police, and it is to be hoped that they identify and issue banning orders against those concerned.
That this sort of thing should be happening at more than one club in one weekend may indicate that simply blaming the supporters of any one club of the clubs involved in the disturbances last weekend would be like applying a sticking plaster to a broken leg. These current outbreaks of trouble could, however, prove to be a flash in the plan, or they could be indicative of something more endemic. Only time will tell. It is to be hoped that all four of these incidents at all of the clubs will be investigated thoroughly by the FA, the police and the clubs concerned themselves and that, between them, they manage to find an appropriate variety of sanctions that act as a deterrent to those that may seek to get involved in such behaviour in the future and punish those that were determined to cause such disorder without unnecessarily punishing the majority of supporters, who hold no truck with such behaviour. It’s a fine line to have to walk.