Hooliganism on wane in England but remains ugly side of the beautiful game
A topless, overweight youth walks by, surrounded by a feral posse of underlings, his Newcastle United shirt tucked into his jeans pocket. He is gripping a large orange traffic cone, which he is looking to launch into the 200 Sunderland fans on the other side of a formidable police presence.
The ominous whirr of the police helicopter mixes with sirens and barking dogs, dominating the area in front of the neoclassical facade of Newcastle's central rail station.
Bus passengers look terrified by what they witness - hundreds of alcohol- and adrenaline-fuelled youths punching the air shouting "Toon, toon!"
The youth throws the traffic cone into the path of an approaching car, an act which sees him become one of the seven arrests made in the vicinity.
Nearby, a police dog sinks its teeth into the thigh of another fan. Its handler eventually pulls the dog away as a pair of shredded jeans falls away like tender roasted lamb off a bone, leaving him semi-exposed in front of hundreds of onlookers.
The Tyne-Wear derby between Newcastle United and Sunderland had finished over an hour before, but the day is not over as police, including those drafted from neighbouring regions, escort some of the 3,000 travelling Sunderland fans back to the train station so they can be transported 12 miles south to home.
The majority travel in a vast fleet of escorted coaches, probably the safest method as the away fans returning to the train station face a series of running battles with the police.
Trying to get at them are hundreds of gloating Geordies, many hoping to re-enact battles between the rival cities which pre-date football by centuries, many of whom have not attended the game. If they succeed, there could be a repeat of the scenes in March 2000, when more than 70 rival hooligans took part in some of Britain's worst football-related violence.
Then, Sunderland's "Seaburn Casuals" clashed with Newcastle's "Gremlins" after boarding a ferry over the Tyne. They fought for five minutes with knives, bats and bricks.
One man was left permanently brain-damaged. Dozens of people were arrested and several jailed after the jury were told that the violence had been like a scene from the film Braveheart.
After an hour, the situation is under control, with the last of the Sunderland fans departed and Newcastle fans returning to their pubs. This happened in April 2008. Similar scenes were reported on Sunday, with Newcastle fans again trying to ambush visiting Sunderland fans.
They happen every year when the teams meet, all that changes is the number of arrests, 27 and rising on Sunday, and the result. Sunderland, not Newcastle, won this time.
A casual observer of the British press yesterday could have been forgiven for thinking it was still the 1980s. Hooliganism and Margaret Thatcher were in the headlines, the former after unedifying scenes at English football grounds over weekend.
On Saturday, 14 fans, 12 of them Millwall supporters, were arrested after sustained fighting among themselves during the FA Cup semi-final against Wigan Athletic at Wembley Stadium.
There were smaller incidents at Bury's match with Oldham Athletic in England's third tier, while Manchester United's game at Stoke City was followed by counter accusations from fans about sick chants.
And, as has become the norm, social media whips up the furore around those accusations, with people who have not attended a football match in years often having the strongest opinions. Football hooliganism is not dead, but it has decreased markedly in England.
Figures released by the British government's Home Office in December show that the two Manchester clubs had more fans arrested than any other team last season. United had 148 fans, City 94 and Liverpool were third with 87.
But you have to take into account that United also enjoy by far and away the highest average attendances, with 1.8 million watching games at Old Trafford alone. There is no record of how many of those arrests led to a prosecution.
The totals were also significantly down on the previous season, a fall from 276 to 148 for United, part of an overall national trend which saw arrests fall by a quarter in one year alone.
Policing and criminal justice minister Damian Green claims that numbers are now at "an all-time low".
There is other encouraging news. Not a single England fan was arrested at Euro 2012, matching the total in South Africa in 2010. This would have been unheard of in the past and would have caused surprise even in the weeks before the tournament, when certain sections of the British media were sensationalising the likelihood of trouble.
"It's an extraordinary reduction, 24 per cent in one year," said Malcolm Clarke from the Football Supporters Federation.
There are several reasons why hooliganism is decreasing. Policing of the beautiful game has become more sophisticated, for one.
"If the past, you'd get a cuff around the ear from a copper," says a retired United hooligan. "Now you get a banning order. It's just not worth it."
Banning orders, where known or convicted troublemakers cannot attend matches or have to report to a police station when a game is on, have hit hooligans hard, though they, too, are falling, from 3,173 in 2011 to 2,750 last season.
Cardiff City have 135 fans on banning orders, more than any other club, followed by Chelsea and Manchester United.
Banning orders are controversial. A civil order can be obtained on the balance of probability without a crime being committed. They can be issued for association with known hooligans or even for wearing dark clothing - perceived to be hooligan attire.
Patterns of fandom are changing, as is the demographic of those attending matches. In the days of yore, fans could decide on the day of a match and pay to watch it at the turnstile. They could go with twenty friends and stand together on a terrace.
Now, it requires strategic planning just to order a ticket for some of the more popular Premier League games. Ticket prices are high and away ends, once a bastion of the hardcore and the hooligan, have been infiltrated by tourists.
Witness the people attending a big Premier League game, especially one in London. There are more monied foreign football tourists than the marginalised few looking for trouble.
Some of the hooligan mindset are appalled at what football has become. They still travel to games, even if they do not actually go in the stadium to watch them. Occasionally, they will regroup like grizzled war veterans, but as so many of them are known to police, trouble is contained and rare.
The events at the weekend were caused by different factors. Trouble is more likely when clubs are given larger ticket allocations, when fans who do not usually go to games show up, including younger hooligans not known to the police.
Local rivalries add to the tension and 5pm kick-off times allow fans to spend more time drinking alcohol early in the day, though it is very rare for fans to fight so much among themselves, as Millwall did.
"Hooliganism has declined, but it will never die," says Tony O'Neill, a former Manchester United hooligan leader and author of two books about his past.
"Every [housing] estate still has hooligans and when thousands of men come together in a crowd, drink alcohol and watch a sport they're passionate about, there's always potential, always one or two throwing fists.
"It's not just football. My wife saw trouble at a Rod Stewart concert - and there were problems at Old Trafford around a recent rugby final, but almost nothing was written about that."
Watching an English team play abroad can still have some risks.
"The likelihood increases for a big European game like a semi-final or final when more fans travel," O'Neill said.
"Or when there's a cheap and cheerful game which is easy to travel to and fans who don't normally travel go and misbehave, but it's sporadic and no longer organised like it once was."
Although the incidents at the weekend were just that, they also show that hooliganism is dormant, not extinct.
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Published: April 16, 2013 04:00 AM