It kicked off a bit at Wembley last Saturday evening, during the semi-final of the FA Cup between Millwall, of south-east London, and Wigan, of somewhere in the north-west of England. A gentleman sitting a couple of rows behind me requested of a chap standing in the gangway that he perhaps ought to sit down. ‘Fucking sit dahn you fucking mug,’ was the manner in which he couched his entreaty, and when he repeated his injunction the man in the gangway took vivid exception and replied thus: ‘I’m going to fuck you.’
This was not, as you might imagine, a statement of brusque and compelling romantic intent, but a harbinger for what followed — a windmilling fist directed at the man’s head. Fittingly enough, the author of The Critique of Pure Reason was then invoked several times by the two combatants while their friends tried to prevent a proper fight, with shouts of ‘leave it ahhhht, vere’s kiddies ’ere, innit’. The younger of the two men then fell downwards and knocked my spectacles from my nose and slightly tore a corner of the Guardian prize crossword, which I had been saving for half-time. The kiddies — my two sons — were howling with laughter.
This was the first violence I’ve seen while watching my team, Millwall, for decades, and as violence goes, it was a few yards short of the full Tarantino. I should have seen some violence at Stoke in 1992 when a group of ten or 12 of us were walking back to the station after the game and, as we turned a corner, were confronted by Stoke’s ‘firm’, at least 30 strong North Midlands untermensch with tattoos and no reason to live. ‘Stand together: remember we fear no foe where e’er we go,’ the self-appointed leader of our cadre advised, but not quickly enough to stop me from legging it at the speed of light. Millwall famously don’t run, but I am my own person, of independent sensibilities. Since then, though, nothing much.
The fight which took place in my vicinity on Saturday was one of several hundred which erupted more or less spontaneously throughout the ground — the largest of which was caught on the TV cameras because the police were too scared to wade in and break it up and so it had time to develop, for alliances to be forged and slaps to become full punches. Were the perpetrators all Millwall fans? I doubt it very much. We get an average home attendance of about 10,000 and there were 32,000 people in the Millwall enclosures; all the people in the row in front of me were Arsenal supporters, for example. But maybe the ones shown on the TV news were all Millwall fans, I dunno. Police say that 12 people were arrested and 40 or more involved in the fracas, but it looks like it was pretty much the same sort of thing as the fight which took place near me; two fat boozed-up or coked-up cretinous middle-aged blokes getting a bit lairy and 38 others trying to, you know, ‘help’. Leave it ahhhhht you slaaaag, etc.
The FA Cup is a prestigious tournament, which is perhaps why Millwall copped the full wrath of the press, despite the fact that many worse incidents of football-related violence took place that day, or the following day. At the Tyne-Wear derby on Sunday, some 29 people were arrested, including one fat but enthusiastic Geordie who punched a police horse in the mouth, presumably out of regret for his team’s capitulation to Sunderland. One policeman hospitalised, two more injured, I’m not sure if the horse needed treatment. After the Everton versus QPR game the previous day an Everton fan was stabbed in the chest by a supporter of QPR. Meanwhile, down in the doldrums — by which I mean League One, the old third division of the football league — angry and irrational Portsmouth supporters invaded the pitch at Brentford and waded into their opposite numbers.
Taken together, these incidents easily lent themselves to newspaper articles on Monday morning which suggested that football hooliganism was ‘back’ — that old English disease of the 1970s and 1980s which we exported extremely successfully to the continent, especially the eastern bits of our continent. Perhaps those decades were in the minds of journalists who wrote this egregious rubbish because of Margaret Thatcher’s death. Whatever, it seems to me very wide of the mark indeed. The sort of stuff which happened at Wembley — and in Newcastle and Brentford — was more pertinently exactly the sort of thing you will see on a Friday or Saturday night in any town or city in the country. It was not the carefully planned, almost choreographed, antics of the old football hooligans, with their embossed calling cards and pre-arranged ‘meets’. It was instead a sort of mass rage occasioned by the imbibing of vast quantities of alcohol by people who are incapable of holding their drink — thick middle-aged men, in the main — and exacerbated by that comparatively arriviste stimulant, cocaine — a bit of ‘sniff’, which for a long time now has ceased to be the preserve of the affluent.
Football was simply a handy conduit for this expression of viciousness, the quickness with which irritation turns to full-on fury. It’s not football that’s the cause; if you doubt that, ask someone who works in an accident and emergency department. It’s how many of us are, at the moment, in general; pissed out of our heads and desperate to take offence and exact revenge.
Wigan won, by the way, two-nil.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 20 April 2013