When the Premier League was founded in 1992, the ghosts of English football were apparently exorcised and replaced with a homogeneous, commercially viable, family-friendly product that continues to be loved around the world.
Those unpleasant ghosts were very much alive from the late 1970s right up until the late 1980s.
Poor behaviour from fans was commonplace. Rioting was not unheard of, and thanks to incidents such as the Heysel Stadium Disaster—which resulted in a four-year ban from European competition for English clubs—the nation became known as a hotbed of hooliganism.
Racism in the terraces occurred frequently. Fathers would not bring their sons (and certainly not their daughters) for fear of the foul language they would hear, or the violence they would see.
Despite the success of English sides on the pitch, the beautiful game had a very ugly side.
This past weekend, the Ghost of Football Past reared its head during (and after) a number of games up and down the country.
Millwall faced Wigan in the first FA Cup semifinal on Saturday, looking to reach their second final in nine years—a solid achievement for a club that has never been in the Premier League. Yet the South London side has been dogged by a thuggish element of their supporter base since the ltd 1970s. The Lions' chant of "No one likes us, we don't care" epitomises the tribal culture of the club that makes more headlines off the field than on it.
(Having attended the Den as an away fan many times over the years, I can vouch for the fact that the experience is intimidating. Away supporters are ferried from the train stations down tunnels with high metal gates so that they aren't exposed to the home contingent. Inside, dozens of the home fans closest to the away section and will barely glance at the field throughout the 90 minutes, instead choosing to face the away section to deliver vitriol.)
As Millwall failed to put up a decent fight on the field at Wembley, many of their fans compensated in the stands.
With around 20 minutes remaining, several brawls broke out among supporters. Police were attacked, and 12 arrests were made for offences including possession of drugs and offensive weapons. One idiot even stole a police officer's hat, while images of a little girl crying as violence erupted around her circulated.
Less than 24 hours later and 280 miles north, shame was brought to the Tyne-Wear derby. After visitors Sunderland pulled off a surprise 3-0 win, hundreds of Newcastle fans vented their frustration with rioting and attacks on police—at their own stadium, within their own city. Violence spilled into some of the main thoroughfares of Newcastle and 29 arrests were made. The disgraceful behavior was perhaps best summed up by the mindless fan who punched a police horse.
At the Britannia Stadium, meanwhile, Manchester Utd and Stoke made further progress towardopposite ends of the Premier League table as the champions-elect emerged 2-0 victors.
Before the match, travelling Utd fans reportedly mocked a minute's applause dedicated to a young fan who had died. Some home fans responded with gestures deriding the 23 fans who died in the 1958 Munich Air Disaster. Both sets of fans have good cause to be ashamed of themselves.
United fans mock Stoke's minute applause for a 14-year-old Stoke fan that passed away, so Stoke respond with Munich songs. Football fans…— Otis Maloney (@OtisMaloney) April 14, 2013
On a day that happens to be the 24th anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster that killed 96 Liverpool fans, it is sad and sobering to reflect on a weekend of events that hark back to the dark ages of English football.
So, should the incidents of this weekend prove not to be isolated events, how should they be tackled?
In my opinion, anti-social behaviour, violence and vile chanting should be dealt with in the same manner as racism.
Last week, Lazio fans were distinctly absent from the Stadio Olimpico for their Europa League clash with Fenerbahce following a stadium ban for racist taunts earlier in the tournament.
The day before, UEFA proposed new disciplinary rules for racist behaviour, such as 10-match bans for players and stadium closures for fans.
Without a harsh deterrent like this, the climate of anti-social behavior is unlikely to change. This is why similarly strict measures must be implemented for those who brutally fight in the stands and the streets outside grounds, or those who shout sickening insults in the hope of invoking a reaction.
The yobbish football fan is an outdated concept that no longer has a place in the modern game.
Although many may wince at the thought of "Americanization" the English game, the Premier League has much to learn from the stadium culture of the NFL. At American Football games I have attended, fans who curse, exhibit drunken behaviour or cause any kind of problem are looked upon with scorn by most other fans—and quickly ejected.
Premier League clubs—and many of those in the divisions below—are deliberately marketing themselves at women and children, with cheap deals for kids and dedicated family enclosures. Football is clearly moving away from the adult male demographic that was prominent in the pre-Premier League days, so it must commit to providing an atmosphere that is welcoming to all ages, and devoid of inappropriate behavior.
Quite simply, those who don't want to play ball should not get the privilege of seeing their favourite team play ball. After all, people who turn up to games to fight and cause offence aren't truly football fans.
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