The clatter of police horses’s hoofs on tarmac, the wail of sirens, the throaty roar of English malehood up for a fight, alarmed bystanders scuttling into side-streets for safety: it was not just any old midweek evening game of football. It was Millwall’s visit to QPR.
For four hours on Tuesday night, parts of Shepherds Bush looked and sounded like a war zone. Millwall fans glory in their reputation for violence and, as with most clubs of their size, QPR have no shortage of fans who are all too happy to respond with their own brand of ugliness.
Here is a 16-second taster of some of the away fans enjoying a quiet drink before the game on Tuesday. By the end of the night, there had been what the newspapers called “riots” on the streets and 11 arrests.
The sight of a football mob looking for a ruckus is surely one of the most striking scenes that contemporary England has to offer. It is the real thing, an aspect of our national character which we prefer to think has been civilised out of us. Violence, a warlike lust for terrorising others with your bulk and rage and numbers, is what defines it.
Before the game, I walked past a small group of six Millwall fans who were outside a kebab shop on the Uxbridge Road, surrounded by a semi-circle of yellow-jacketed police. They were middle-aged, fat. Without exception, they wore the same expression of glazed, unfocused rage. Passers-by, the police seemed hardly to exist to them. It was as if they were in another zone and were programmed simply to do as much harm to opposing fans as is physically possible. Yet, presumably, when they returned to south London, they would be dads and granddads, office-workers, mechanics, normal members of society.
That look of zombie-like rage: is it a pose? Is it something they teach you at hooligan school? Are they on drugs? Or is the only drug at work that old favourite, blood-lust? Whatever its source, it is effectively scary.
Another oddity. The match itself was largely ignored by the hardcore fans. Their blood was up, and they were so intent on abusing, gesturing, threatening and chanting in the direction of opposing fans that for long periods, what was happening on the pitch was a sideshow. It is not that the football was irrelevant (the fact that both teams are doing well fuelled the crazed aggression), more that, the whole event was more important than a sporting contest between two teams.
The result was a match that was pulsating and memorable. The awkward truth is that there is thinnest of lines between acceptable passion and unacceptable violence at a match like this. Rage, frustration, ecstasy, leering triumphalism, our joy, your misery are part of what make it memorable.
It was why the Loftus Road stadium was packed on Tuesday, why fair-weather fans were there in droves. Personally, they would sooner die that hit another person, or scream foul-mouthed abuse or to be part of a howling mob pursuing people through the streets, but to be in an environment when others are doing all those things is undeniably exciting.
Managers like to pretend that the sort of nastiness which descended on west London on Tuesday is a problem of society, not football. “I do hear there was trouble outside the ground but it is hard for football to always take responsibility for that,” the Millwall manager Kenny Jackett said after the match.
That, of course, is nonsense.
It does not excuse the ugliness, or even make it more understandable but, in his or her heart, every true football fans knows that part of the attraction of the English game, part of what makes it thrilling and edgy, is the connection it provides to the dark, primeval, tribalist rage that lies deep within all of us.