Football Violence, Thatcherism and the Media
In an emotive week, we have so far resisted discussing the attempts of a certain individual to run the sport we love into the ground a quarter of a century ago now. Nonetheless, a press narrative appears to be developing that recalls that era.
Here, Tom Furnival-Adams analyses another example of how the irresponsibility of the Fourth Estate has gotten out of hand and how this might well suit the heirs of a previous regime. Tom is a Coventry City fans and be found expositing on the Sky Blues’ plight in the pages of the current issue of When Saturday Comes, the publication that did so much to combat Margaret Thatcher’s negative influence on football.
It has been a week that solidified the political polarisation of British society in the wake of the death of Margaret Thatcher, in the aftermath of sweeping Tory-led Thatcherite ideological welfare reform. As the front pages rushed to condemn and eulogise Baroness Thatcher in equal measure, the back pages chose to focus on unfortunate incidents that took place at football matches at opposite ends of the country over the weekend.
At Wembley on Saturday afternoon, a minority of Millwall supporters appeared determined to live up to the club’s trouble-making reputation as in-fighting broke out in the Millwall end during the FA cup semi-final against Wigan. Police were eventually forced to get involved, resorting to the use of batons as they struggled to restore order. ESPN cameras captured blood pouring down the faces of Lions supporters, not to mention the emotive image of a young girl in tears as grown men tore into one another around her.
In the North East the following day, 29 people were arrested following Newcastle’s surprise 0-3 defeat to Sunderland in the Tyne-Wear derby. Trouble flared between opposing fans in Newcastle city centre, as bottles were thrown at polices and photographs circulated of bins being set alight by young fans.
To compound these two incidents, a number of news sources reported that 28 people had been charged with violent disorder after police investigations into disorder at a match between Shrewsbury Town and Walsall although these articles tended to omit from their headlines that this match occurred in October of last year. The Daily Mirror then built on this by sensationally declaring that a “weekend of shame” had taken place within football, reporting of trouble at St Mary’s during Saturday’s game between Southampton and West Ham. Upon closer inspection, thia whole story rested on a photo of two men fighting one another, and the article was not even able to state within any degree of confidence who the two men supported, nor the context of the incident.
So, what conclusions can be drawn from these incidents? Millwall’s reputation requires no elaboration. They have a minority faction of fans who seem to revel in being disliked, and seize upon opportunities to live up to their image quicker than Mark Hughes squandering a multi-million pound transfer budget. It is no surprise, then, that placed into Wembley stadium as part of a crowd of 31,500, and in the midst of Millwall’s biggest game in ten years, trouble occurred. It isn’t acceptable, and it doesn’t make it any less shocking, but it was not entirely unpredictable.
Tyne-Wear derbies are renowned for trouble. It would be highly unusual for Newcastle and Sunderland to play each other without incident – in 2001, 160 people were arrested bef0re, after and during a meeting of the two heavyweights, whilst the fixture saw 24 arrests as recently as 2011; part of a game in the course of which Steve Harper was pushed over by a Sunderland fan. Given that Sunday’s game represented Sunderland’s first win at St James’ Park in 13 years, and that the victory came so emphatically, is it really a surprise that emotions boiled over in the heat of the moment and the idiots capitalised on the situation? The two teams involved have one of the most heated rivalries in British – if not world – football. Again, this is not a justification of what happened, but the context should be considered when analysing the significance of the weekend’s events collectively.
Chronology is key when considering the charges in relation to the game between Shrewsbury and Walsall, and the alleged disruption at St Mary’s. The Shrewsbury verdict became newsworthy only in retrospect, in light of what took place at the weekend at Wembley and in Newcastle. Had nothing else happened, it’s likely that only those with a specific interest in the two clubs involved would have even been aware of the verdict.
Similarly, the mention of trouble between two unidentified men during the game between Southampton and West Ham had the feel of a journalist retrospectively scraping the barrel for evidence to support a weak theory. There had been no mention of this incident on Saturday evening, before we’d had time to digest the ugly scenes at Wembley, and before the North-East derby had taken place. Had the other incidents not occurred, it would have been ignored by the press, and seen by the police as something entirely normal – two men in a crowd having a fight. The Mirror had simply run out of things to say, and so dug up an obscure incident to use as an excuse to continue to run a story about some sort of unsubstantiated revival of British hooliganism.
Small-scale fights take place at football grounds around the country every week; not because football has a problem, but because some people, when in a crowd, and when having consumed alcohol, are especially prone to aggression. The same thing happens on high streets across the country every Friday and Saturday night for the same reason. The four events were grouped together in order to reinforce the fabricated concept of a return to a ‘dark age’, to give the impression of a pattern of behaviour based on isolated incidents, two of which took place in exceptional circumstances, and two which were seized upon retrospectively, and only in light of the others.
It is not, then, these actual events that I feel are worthy of reflection, but rather the media agenda. Statistics will variously tell you that violence and crime at football matches has been steadily declining for a number of years now. There is certainly no sudden spike or revival to report. If anything, the papers have tended in recent years to bemoan the commercialisation and lack of atmosphere that characterises premier league grounds. This week was not the culmination of a long-term rise in unsavoury incidents, but rather an anomaly. Concluding now that we have ‘returned to the dark ages’ would be fundamentally illogical.
The fortnight preceding the weekend had seen sweeping welfare reform; the condemnation of the Philpotts as a ‘Vile Product of Welfare UK’, and a full-on ideological war between Left and Right. The death of Margaret Thatcher seemed almost to serve as a final metaphorical barrier, dividing the country’s two mainstream political factions. The Right-leaning tabloids have subsequently done everything they can to evoke the divisive spirit of the late 1970s and early 80s, revelling in the opportunity to condemn protestors and demonstrators as Marxist troublemakers in need of teaching a jolly good lesson. Football simply operates as a component of this agenda.
The images that ESPN decided to broadcast on Saturday (instead of the football match taking place on the pitch) were significant because of the fact that they made a story; they slotted neatly into a narrative of the state-funded working classes becoming impossible to contain. Football – as a leisure pursuit – is an ideal circumstance in which to frame the supposed retrogrades in the act of wasting ‘our’ money. One commenter beneath a Daily Mail online article on the events at Wembley described Millwall fans as ‘Thick, benefit scrounging anarchists’, which rather succinctly summarises the agenda the media has used the weekend to promote.
The order of the day at the moment is 80s nostalgia, and what better way to subconsciously bring this to the fore than imagery of police horses and officers in protective uniform, attempting to control violent, bloodied football supporters? When we think of Thatcher’s legacy, many of us instantly recall images of the poll tax riots, picketing miners and Left-wing protest – the oppressed attempting to stick up for themselves and being demonized for it. Of course, this is not what happened at any of the weekend’s football matches. There was no political point to be made. But what was successfully portrayed was a supposed underclass that is out of control, and that needs reigning in.
Only now, the agenda does not really work. Football is not a working class sport in the way it was back then. Rumours that the trouble amongst the Millwall fans started when some fans were seen openly taking cocaine suggests that a lack of money was not the root of the problem. Hooliganism is not dead, but nor is it the key issue it once was in football. Mobile technology has meant that for every individual causing trouble at a football match, there are probably 25 others filming footage on their phones that can be used as evidence against the perpetrators, and tweeting their condemnation for the whole world to see instantly.
Besides a careful re-think of the way policing is managed at high-profile games at Wembley (something which has already been announced since the FA cup semi-final) the only lesson we can learn from the weekend is that the Leveson Inquiry’s conclusion has had no impact on the tabloid press whatsoever. Their willingness to cash in on the current political division in this country, at the expense of football supporters and in support of a seemingly ruthlessly compassionless government, shows that it is they who are stuck in the 80s.