What distresses me is that people had taken their children to Wembley for their first big game and the kids were so terrified they don’t want to go to football again – Michael Calvin
By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
NOBODY saw it coming, not least Michael Calvin who spent a year virtually living with Millwall to write “Family – Life, Death and Football.” Families may argue, but fight?
The images of violence at the FA Cup semi-final against Wigan Athletic at Wembley were a chilling reminder that while improved stewarding, policing, all-seat stadia and CCTV have done much to make English football safer, hooliganism is still bubbling below the surface. What Pele called the beautiful game showed its ugly face over the weekend with 12 Millwall “supporters” arrested plus 29 at the Newcastle v Sunderland Tyne-Wear derby.
Calvin refuses to call those who disgraced the club, the FA Cup, English football and the sport in general “fans” or “supporters”. “They don’t deserve that dignity,” he said. “They are louts.
“It is wrong to even attempt to defend the indefensible. The starting point for any debate must be to condemn the behaviour of those in the Millwall end who chose to fight among themselves, before rounding on the police. As we can assume that Wembley has almost as many CCTV cameras as the CIA headquarters hopefully it should be a relatively simple process to identify the troublemakers.”
Millwall’s history has given the club an image that will be difficult going on impossible to change despite the sterling efforts of the club. South-east London, where I grew up, was the last part of the capital to be modernised, a hard-nosed area with the Old Kent Road and Walworth Road still stuck in a tenement time-warp.
“It’s a very complex club,” said Calvin. “It’s tribally driven and in many ways it’s a generational thing. The people who formed Millwall’s reputation during the Seventies and Eighties are now fathers and grandfathers who take their sons and grandsons to matches.
“Millwall’s attraction to me as a journalist was its very nature, it’s a proud working-class football club in an area that is slowly becoming gentrified. The reputation does attract a certain type of person. The images of fighting, terrified children and baton-wielding policemen are damning and demoralising for everyone who has a genuine feeling for the club.”
There have been inevitable calls for Millwall to be punished by the Football Association and Calvin said: “My early journalistic training taught me perspective boils down to the man on the Clapham omnibus. What would that reasonable person make of a libel case, or something like this? Reasonable people would surely say Millwall, as a club, did everything they could. I don’t believe they are in denial. Sadly, the majority have once again been tainted by the minority, perhaps as few as 50 people.”
Millwall’s average attendance at The Den is around 11,000, yet 35,000 followed them at Wembley. Calvin said: “Where did the extra 20-odd thousand come from? The statistical probability is that some of those had absolutely no affinity with Millwall at all. They were mates of mates or whatever.”
Football can no longer accept sponsorship from tobacco companies, though alcohol, the product that is responsible for making so many people turn to violence, still promotes itself through football, even the FA Cup. The early evening kick-off allowed more refuelling time than usual, the official Football Association Twitter site, unfortunately but blamelessly tweeting an hour before the kick-off of Saturday that 75,000 pints and 50,000 bottles of Budweiser will be sold at the two semi-finals over the weekend.
Calvin said: “High risk league games are invariably played at lunch-time. Television, understandably given the money they pay, want FA Cup semi-finals to kick-off at a time when then can maximise their ratings. What we have is a commercially driven kick-off time, but the fact remains the likelihood of that sort of trouble would have been significantly reduced had it been played at lunch-time. Also, had the semi-final been played earlier the Wigan fans would have been able to take a train home afterwards.
“Saturday was the car crash, the worst case scenario, a game watched by a massive global audience and it developed into a media frenzy. I don’t criticise anyone for writing the story, but some of the comments, calling for Millwall to be thrown out of the FA Cup, are just knee-jerk, intellectually flawed nonsense.
“What particularly distresses me about the whole scenario is that last Sunday, four or five people contacted me to say they had taken their children to Wembley for their first big game. The kids were so terrified they don’t want to go to football again.
“To say it was an internal squabble almost dignifies it. Those responsible were a bunch of drunken invertebrates fighting among themselves. It just happened to be at a football match. It could have been in a pub car park, a street brawl…anywhere. But football attracted them on Saturday and the fact they had been drinking all day compounded the issue.”
Ticket restrictions should ensure only verified supporters can buy them, though those who can remember easier access to watch a game will bemoan a society that must now be segregated.
The trouble involving Millwall followers could hardly have happened at a more high profile occasion, but there is a worryingly amount of football-related violence that is not reported nationally. Wembley and Tyneside were far from the only scenes of violence over the past year.
In February, 10 fans were arrested during and after the Crystal Palace v Charlton Athletic derby. Several rows of seats and the toilets in the away end were damaged while troublemakers smashed cars and damaged residents’ property as they made their way home. Chief Superintendent Adrian Roberts, who led the operation, described their actions as “mindless destruction.”
Six men were arrested on suspicion of affray thought following violence that erupted in the city centre after the Newcastle v Chelsea game on February 2.
Police made 19 arrests when Sunderland and West Ham supporters clashed before the game on January 12.
Last month 87 people were arrested in the build-up to the Blue Square Bet Premier match between Nuneaton Town and Lincoln City.
Thirty one arrests were made following violent scenes in Huddersfield on May 19, 2012 – the day of the Championship play-off final. The trouble continued in the railway station before spilling on to the tracks. Several men chased each other through the platforms and eventually down the track towards Deighton, causing 61 trains to be delayed and seven to be cancelled altogether. The disruption caused nearly 15 hours of delays and cost thousands in lost earnings.
Calvin said: “Occasionally football holds up a mirror to who we are and what we have become. This is England, our England. Every Friday and Saturday night pubs and night clubs can become battlegrounds. Wembley was a manifestation of the society we’ve become.”
*Family – Life, Death and Football by Michael Calvin (Icon Books, £8.99)