"Of course they're not real football fans."
A frequent soundbite heard in the hey day of football hooliganism in the 70's and 80's. I heard it again this week in the aftermath of the troubles at the West Ham v Millwall game last Tuesday.
Disclaimer first. I didn't go to the game. I'm a West Ham season ticket holder but this would never be a game I'd choose to go.
In my youth I went to Millwall's Old Den and saw some pretty unpleasant behaviour and I haven't been to a Millwall game since.
It would seem that the worst of the problems occurred outside Upton Park tube station with hundreds of West Ham fans waiting for their Millwall counterparts to leave the station. The road outside the Queens Pub nearby was the backdrop to bottles, bricks and anything else being thrown over the cordon of police. It seems there were sporadic acts of mindless evil orchestrated by sets of both fans on Green Street and the roads surrounding the stadium. This seems to be the worst of it with further stand-offs with the police after the game.
Inside the ground there was a poisonous atmosphere and the worst events seem to be Millwall fans ripping up seats, taunts between the two and lunatic pitch invasions from West Ham fans in celebration of goals and ultimate victory.
The problem is these people are football fans. And a largely repulsive lot they are. Any suggestion that this is the minority offending / spoiling things for the few is garbage.
There is a significant number of repugnant people who follow football and West Ham has more than its fair share. I see them at every game. Wherever I've sat in the stadium these idiots are there.
Let me be clear. I understand that tribal rivalry is a key element to supporting a football team. I know it and I feel that bit. But to a degree. Chants at football are pathetic and largely infantile - "Stand Up If You Hate Tottenham" (or whoever) It's just ridiculous and no, I've never sung it (or stood up - unless it was to watch the game).
If I say I 'hate' a team and / or their supporters I'd hope that this in context. Some fans of other clubs can be irritating - Tottenham fans in particular get up the nose of me and many others - but only when they are talking football. I don't hate anybody. If this was all pantomime 'hate' it would be excusable but still ridiculous. It isn't - it is very real for a lot of these lowlifes.
The Premier League and all seater stadiums have sanitised the football experience - almost always for the better in my view and it has been argued that there is a new breed of fan - if not middle class certainly better than no class. If only.
I've seen and heard these oafs at every game I've been to. These days the worst of them are in their 40's and often fat, bald men with a minimum of 10 tattoos. Even in my current seat up on the gods in the main stand I've witnessed some ugly events. Last year there were a few Liverpool fans from eastern Europe who had bagged tickets in our section. When Liverpool scored in the first minute they jumped up and cheered.
Bloody annoying and they were clearly unaware of the etiquette required. I was angry with them and would have preferred it if they moved away. But other than a filthy look or polite intervention that would have been it for me. Not for others. These innocent (if foolish) Liverpool fans were then subjected to intimidation by an angry mob who, had they been able to access the 'culprits', would have executed their anger physically. Thankfully it never came to anything.
A couple of years ago though it did when an even more misguided Everton fan (who was clearly drunk and almost 'asking for it') was set upon by Messrs Burly, Bald and Bulldog.
No mistake, these people love violence. They love the idea of defending territory.
Don't try to explain the history of West Ham v Millwall rivalry with any historical social context - there may have been a local dispute over a century ago involving striking dock workers but this has absolutely bugger all to do with what happened last Tuesday. It happened for a variety of reasons but mostly due to myths, self fulfilling prophecies, and the decline of social standards altogether which occurs every weekend in High Streets across the land. But let's just stick to the ills of football here.
Step forward the producers of the movies Green Street, Football Factory and Cass. Take a bow. It wasn't long ago that someone expressed surprise that as a West Ham fan I haven't watched any of these films. Maybe Tuesday night explains why.
In the absence of extreme violence over recent years, the hooliganism period of 20 years ago has become glorified, if not romanticised. These films fuel the notoriety of the protagonists and elevate them further as heroic figures. Tragically, the ICF of old still come to West Ham and now they bring their sons with them. The lineage continues, particularly in these socio-economic times.
Yes, Gianfranco Zola expressed his feelings about the events and West Ham CEO Scott Duxbury confirmed that life bans would be imposed on any wrongdoers. Not enough. What I would have liked to have heard was all the players condemning any fan who ran on the pitch (even those carried away in the moment of 'celebration'), and stating that they do not want to play for a club which has fans who overstep the tribal rivalry into intimidation and poison.
West Ham shouldn't wait for any punishment either. They should withdraw from the Carling Cup, effectively giving Bolton (who they are drawn to play next) a bye into the next round. Furthermore, the club should compensate Bolton for any loss in match revenue and apologise to the Bolton staff and fans.
This would be the right message. Yes it would spoil it for the 'majority' but it might make the less extreme West Ham fans have a voice in the future should we see any repeat of last week any time soon.
Stewards have a role to play too. Instead of just herding fans back into the seats they should have 'arrested' them. Any chant at a game which would not be socially acceptable in any other context (and there are plenty at football games like this) should be stamped out. I remember that I was standing at a game once and a steward came up and told me I had to sit down. I told him that he had spent the last hour ignoring extreme foul language, verbal abuse of opposition players and fans, anti semitic, misogynistic chanting and other vile behaviour yet my standing up was the first occasion that intervention was thought necessary. He looked at me as if I was joking. Sarcastic yes, joking no.
Sometimes, when it comes to law and order, I can be as right wing as Thatcher but I remain a woolly liberal pacifist, who just happens to support West Ham. One day, that might not be a contradiction.