Studs Up


Violence And Football
August 31, 2009, 2:18 pm
Filed under: Football

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In the early hours of the Saturday before last, West Ham Utd defender Calum Davenport was attacked in an incident related to his private life. During what was a vicious and brutal assault on both the player and his mother, Davenport’s legs were stabbed repeatedly in what is thought to have been a deliberate attempt to end his career. In the aftermath of the incident, there were fears that Davenport’s leg might have to be amputated, an indication of the severity of his injuries that does not bode well for his future as a footballer. Such an awful event puts football as a whole into perspective, and as last week began, I’m sure few could have imagined that another off-field calamity of similar magnitude was about to befall West Ham. However, the clues were in the draw for the 2nd round of the Carling Cup. Three days after Davenport’s stabbing, violent clashes between fans of West Ham and Millwall produced tremors that shook the foundations of the game in England. And as a man lies in hospital recovering from a knife wound to the chest sustained during the violent clashes, the football community are obliged to identify those responsible and bring them to account.

But who exactly ought to be held responsible? Obviously it would be nice to charge all of the “fans” that were involved in the violence with whatever their respective offences merited. But as well as being impossible given the huge numbers involved and vagueness around what would actually constitute involvement, this seems to me to be a measure that contributes little to the process of preventing a reoccurrence of such an incident. With the FA launching an investigation, West Ham and Millwall are set to be hit with some sort of punishment, with West Ham particularly in the firing line since their stewards were unable to prevent numerous pitch invasions (on three separate occasions West Ham fans were able to invade the pitch, and could even be seen confronting and verbally abusing players). While expulsion from the competition remains a possibility, as do games played behind closed doors, the very least West Ham can expect is a fine. The club has already vowed to accept whatever punishment they are given, although it’s probably worth pointing out that they have little choice given how unwise it would be to appear to condone the actions of the perpetrators.

But either way, the usual routine that follows bad behaviour from supporters, namely a club-fine and a clearly voiced intention on the part of said club to root out the ring-leaders and prevent them from attending future games, still seems to me to be wide of the mark in terms of a step towards preventing further incidents of this kind. In all probability, the deplorable individuals who were responsible for the coordination of the violent clashes last Tuesday have already been banned from attending West Ham and Millwall games. This doesn’t really matter to them because amongst their circle of friends this probably represents some sort of badge of honour. Moreover, they’re much more interested in a fight than they are in football anyway. I’m not saying that West Ham and Millwall should not be punished for what happened, nor am I saying that any individuals involved should be allowed to attend future games, but this should not be all that happens.

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Having the pictures and videos of obese, shaven-headed, heavily tattooed middle-aged white males goading each other, I found myself tempted into a knee-jerk reaction of: “oh let them at each other, they all deserve whatever comes of it, save police time and taxpayers’ money”. However, this is not really acceptable. Firstly, I take the liberal view that these violent criminals are actually mentally unwell, and therefore are entitled to protection from themselves. But less controversial is the fact that innocent individuals could and do become caught in the middle of such things, and that alone is reason to do everything possible to stop the violence. It is well-known that football-related violence and rioting has never ceased, but has in fact merely relocated from match-venues to areas under less police scrutiny. However, last week’s scenes prove that as long as the culture exists, the public are still at risk. Therefore, the challenge facing football’s governing bodies and the police is to take steps that might genuinely prevent such a thing happening ever again.

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As a Liverpool fan, I have never taken any notice of the draw for the 2nd round of the Carling Cup, because my team only become involved at the 3rd round stage. However, if I had noticed that West Ham had drawn bitter local rivals Millwall, I would have expected there to be a bit of bother. You’d have thought that relevant authorities might have had the same thought. But if they did, their reaction was clearly inadequate. Upton Park tube station and the streets surrounding the ground ought to have been swarming with riot police during the afternoon and evening of the game, Millwall fans ought to have been completely isolated during the build up to the game, and the number of stewards and police inside the ground ought to have been increased by a much greater margin than they were (if indeed they were at all). To me, the apparent surprise felt by those responsible for protecting the public during football matches seems naïve to the point of embarrassment. Ken Chapman, Millwall FC’s Security and Operations Adviser admitted on BBC’s Football Focus that he felt “shocked”. But it was West Ham versus Millwall, surely anybody who knows anything about football understands the significance of that match-up. Even if Tuesday night’s violence did come as a surprise to those responsible for keeping the peace, it would not require a particularly elaborate system of intelligence-gathering to work out which clubs’ “firms” have particularly keen rivalries, and to therefore considerably increase whatever anti-violence measures would usually be in place as standard whenever two such clubs were drawn together. The FA have responded to the media pressure following last week’s events with plenty of rhetoric, but I’m hoping (perhaps showing similar naivety myself) that their response will run much deeper. Otherwise, next time the consequences for those who merely wish to enjoy the beautiful game might be even worse.

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