As soon as the League Cup second round draw was made on August 12 there was one tie that caught the eye in particular, but unfortunately not for footballing reasons. West Ham vs. Millwall meant two bitter rivals were to go head-to-head at Upton Park, and the potential for trouble would give reason for most police officers to lose sleep. Regrettably, that potential was unleashed with force before, during, and after the game last night, with scenes of violence which will bring shame to English football.
Hundreds of fans were involved in what the Metropolitan Police described as “large-scale and pre-planned” hooliganism outside Upton Park, where one man was stabbed and taken to hospital. Bricks and other missiles were thrown at not just rival supporters, but the police as well as it soon became clear that football was not the reason why many had travelled to east London.
Once the game kicked off, three serious pitch invasions and further clashes in the stands marred what was, in truth, an exciting derby game. But the headlines will be dominated by events off the pitch, and rightly so, for this type of behaviour must be made an example of. When fans enter the playing field, they are putting the safety of themselves and the players at risk, even if this is not the intention. An over-elaborate celebration, for example, may inadvertently cause a player injury. Incredibly, one fan tried to take a picture of the Hammers’ Carlton Cole on his camera phone while trespassing on the pitch.
Speaking of modern technology, it is through internet forums, message boards and even text messaging that hooliganism is able to slip under the radar. In games where trouble is likely, more online monitoring must be undertaken to try and intercept the perpetrators, or at least anticipate the scale and severity of the violence. That is not to say the police and stewards did a bad job of handling the events on the night – their managing of the situation was, on the contrary, commendable – but perhaps more could have been done beforehand. At the same time, hopefully it is this technology which will be able to convict several of the troublemakers. CCTV images must be studied, internet history investigated and any television footage used to identify anyone involved. The FA has already confirmed that any supporter identified will be banned from football for life, stating they “have no place in our game”. The fact that many of these so-called fans didn’t actually have tickets for the game anyway suggests that this will have little effect on matters that occurred outside of the stadium. The FA is, however, taking the correct, strong stance on this event.
But what else can be done to try and tackle football violence? One possible, perhaps extreme, suggestion is to simply prevent two rival sets of fans from clashing altogether by playing potentially high-risk games behind closed doors. Of course, this would be exceptionally controversial and the clubs would lose thousands of pounds in revenue, but if hooliganism is going to threaten lives – as it did at West Ham – then do we really have a choice? Highlighting the ‘high-risk’ games would be a problem in itself, and genuine fans would miss out on watching their team play. And to what extent this would even prevent rival gangs from clashing is also up for debate. The man lying in a hospital bed, however, may be one fan willing to back this experiment.
As England prepares its bid for the 2018 World Cup the ugly scenes in East London are the last thing that was needed, and something must be done to in order to prevent a repeat. Millwall may have ultimately been defeated, but football is without a doubt the night’s biggest loser.