It's hard to have sympathy for Millwall. No entity is more synonymous with English football violence than fans of the South East London club whose terrace anthem is, "no one likes us, we don't care."
Millwall's hooligan element, which remains very much in the minority, has been exported throughout the world. Movies like Green Street, The Football Factory and Arrivederci Millwall have fed off their unsavoury reputation and taken the Millwall "bushwackers" firm to global notoriety.
It was the Kenilworth Road riot between Millwall and Luton fans in 1985 that prompted Margaret Thatcher's government to try to institute ID cards for every match-going football supporter in the country (unsuccessfully).
By 2009 hooliganism was no longer a spectre hanging over the English game, but fighting between Millwall and West Ham fans brought a reminder of what lurked beneath.
The same happened at Wembley on Saturday, as Millwall fans turned on each other during their team's FA Cup semifinal defeat to Wigan (reported by The Guardian).
Naturally, the press had a field day. Football violence is a scourge of the game, but it is also a surefire way of selling newspapers.
Most reading the story will do so in disgust. There will always be an element excitedly lapping it up, however, as they gorge on images of bloodied fans taking it to each other and the police.
Hooliganism porn is an industry in itself. Books and films are sold on it, and there remains a hardcore element who live for it. What you see in the movies is a glamorised version of seedy reality, but the reality is still there to be found if you want it.
It's a rare occurrence to come upon it by chance these days, though. I'm often asked if football matches in England are safe places, and the answer is emphatically "yes."
All-seater stadia, CCTV and tactical policing measures have resigned the violence to places where the average fan doesn't go. It still happens in pockets, but the odds are you won't be there to watch it. And you certainly won't be in danger from it.
Having grown up in England in the 1980s, I felt a sickening sense of deja vu watching the images relayed on Saturday night—grown men fighting each other and battling police as women and children cowered in fear and shame around them. They were just a few dozen among a crowd of over 60,000, but they became the headline story beamed around the world.
Most Millwall fans were as disgusted as the rest of us. A day that should have been among the proudest in the club's history was overshadowed by a group for whom the football match going on was secondary.
Millwall have made it a priority to cleanse the hooligan element from their midst, with some success. Said their manager Kenny Jackett on Saturday evening, as per the Guardian:
We have worked very hard to do everything we possibly can to be trouble-free. We have had many high-profile games when things have gone very well. Our work in the community is considerable and we will continue to do that to help the club.
But on Saturday, sadly, much of that good work was undone. Millwall's reputation was dragged back down, and the club will once again be tasked with finding a cure.
Blaming the late kickoff time is neither here nor there. Fans will always find a way to drink heavily before a big game, and why should our game be dictated to by those who can't moderate themselves?
To make matters worse, the behaviour of Millwall fans wasn't the only blight on English football this weekend.
Newcastle's derby match against Sunderland on Sunday kicked off at 12 p.m. local time, but an element of home fans still managed to wreak havoc on the streets afterwards (as reported by BBC). A total of 29 arrests were made, prompting Newcastle to release a statement on their official website.
An extract read:
We were embarrassed and appalled by the behaviour of a minority of so-called fans who last night were involved in disturbances and disorder in Newcastle city centre after the match.
Newcastle, like Millwall, will come down heavily on the perpetrators and do everything they can to make sure it doesn't happen again. Unlike Millwall, they have a reputation as having some of the best fans in football to protect. It won't take too many more instances like those on Sunday night to undermine that.
These were two episodes that took English football back to the dark ages—to a time where the mindless minority blighted the game's standing and the majority paid a big price. English clubs were banned from Europe, and their fans marked down as hooligans who needed to be policed appropriately.
Before we get carried away, let us remember how far the game has come since the 1980s. And let us hope the outcry in the wake of these episodes will help avoid similar ugly scenes in future.
Most of all, let us remember that those responsible were not football fans at all.
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