There will be those who insist the violence that broke out toward the end of Saturday's FA Cup semifinal between Millwall and Wigan Athletic was an isolated incident; it's the usual way of downplaying such things. But it wasn't. I saw three separate scuffles in the Millwall end before the brawl that was shown on T. I saw around 30 men going toe-to-toe, swinging punches at each other and then turning on police when, belatedly, an effort was made to stop them. Other journalists spoke of at least two other incidents, and there had been an unpleasant edge to the atmosphere all day.
That had been evident even 3 1/2 hours before kickoff on the Tube to the game. The carriage next to one I was in was packed with fans who were already drunk -- and in some cases fairly evidently under the influence of cocaine; it was no great surprise that six of the arrests were for possession of a Class A substance -- and relishing the opportunity to intimidate other passengers. Supporters spoke of seeing people openly cutting lines of cocaine in the seats. This is a detail that seems particularly significant given one of the theories for the decline of hooliganism in the 1990s was the rise of ecstasy as the drug of choice, leaving people too blissed out to fight.
There was talk that the Millwall section had been infiltrated by fans of other clubs, and that is certainly possible. After all, the club's average home attendance this season is 11,500; it had sold 20,000 more tickets than that for the semifinal, and those people must have come from somewhere. Talking to fans who were near the worst fighting, though, the cause seemed to have been rather more mundane: an argument over a seat, some pushing and shoving, somebody falling into a nearby child, a reaction and a reaction to the reaction leading to a full-on brawl. When police intervened, both sides turned on them.
Quite why it took so long for a police reaction remains unclear, but there are reports that officers struggled to gain access through a packed concourse made all the more crowded by some fans fleeing the fighting and others rushing toward it. What was clear was that the shape of stairwells made it difficult to get police there in sufficient numbers quickly to quell the trouble; the officers at the front of the charge, approaching three or four abreast, were easily targeted. Other accounts suggested they had been indiscriminate in their use of truncheons, adding to the general sense of panic.
The outcome was a day of shame for English football and for Millwall in particular, although condemnation of the club must be tempered by sympathy given the enormous efforts it has made to rid itself of the element that made it synonymous with the worst of the hooligan problems of the 1980s. This was a day of images that will not quickly be forgotten: a fan being led away by stewards, blood gushing from his face and scalp; a girl of perhaps 10 or 11 weeping in terror, clinging to the man next to her; and the grinning fan trotting away from the fight, hiding a stolen policeman's hat under his jacket unaware his face was being broadcast live to millions of viewers around the world.
But shocking as it was, the suggestion English football has plunged back into the dark ages is nonsense -- even if the trouble on Saturday was followed on Sunday by 29 arrests as Newcastle fans ran amok after their side's derby defeat to Sunderland. There were more arrests but the incident was less shocking as the violence occurred not in the stadium but in streets nearby. Seeing pictures of a man, scarf covering half his face, squaring up to a horse with fists raised, it's hard not to wonder what sort of narcotic might have been at play.
There has been a strange mood about Britain over the past week, seemingly brought about by the coincidence of two events last Monday: the death of Margaret Thatcher, the most divisive British politician since World War II, and the introduction of a raft of changes to the welfare system that many believe will make the poor worse off.
A rally against the cuts of benefits arranged for Trafalgar Square on Saturday became a demonstration to mark Thatcher's passing -- either celebrating her death or protesting about her legacy depending who you listened to. Over the past week it feels as though television has constantly been showing footage of the civil unrest of the Thatcher era: clashes between pickets and police during the Miners Strike, hooliganism and the inner-city riots of Brixton, Toxteth and Tottenham. There was a reminder of a time when, for many, the police were the enemy, the agent of a state intent on destroying traditional industry and a particular way of life. Most people expected violence on Saturday: it's just the expectation was it would be ignited in Trafalgar Square rather than at Wembley.
Now, of course, it is possible that general disaffection and the sense of a certain section of society having been cut adrift will again crystallize into hooliganism at football grounds. The difference between now and the '80s, though, is that the environment around football, at least at Premier League level. Television makes it almost impossible for troublemakers to go undetected, while the general sanitization and gentrification of crowds makes it unlikely there could ever be the sort of widespread problems of the '80s. That's true at least of the Premier League; the England national team is another matter and, after a number of banning orders to significant individuals expired, there were worrying reports of a change in the makeup of the fans who traveled to watch last month's World Cup qualifiers at San Marino and Montenegro.
So there is reason for concern and reason for vigilance, but it should equally be recognized that what happened at the weekend was the result of a highly unusual concatenation -- a mood of dissent and discontent ignited by two events always likely to be combustible: a Tyne-Wear derby and a big game involving Millwall.