Take a look at the photographs of the nasty ruckus which took place at Tuesday’s football match between West Ham and Millwall. The mood expressed on the faces of those involved is not angry, or even defiant. It is joyful. These are guys having fun. In another context – a rock concert, say, or the celebration of a national sporting victory – those laughing faces and pointing fingers, the sparkle of excitement in those eyes, would remind us that, even in this age of alienation, old-fashioned male companionship is alive and well.
Following the fights, the police, politicians and media have deployed the usual, well-worn phrases of outrage, but describing the punchers, stabbers and tattooed fatties as “yobs”, “thugs” or – a particularly idiotic term of abuse – “animals” is pointless. Not only have they heard it all before, but the indignation of outsiders merely adds to their pleasure. Belonging to a firm, a tribe or whatever self-aggrandising name these prats attach to themselves, helps transcend the dullness of their lives. It provides passion, excitement, a sense of belonging. It is a corrupted peacetime version of the squaddie spirit.
In fact, the suggestion that fighting fans are somehow exceptional is self-defeating. Years ago, I was unwise to sit among Millwall fans for a sell-out game against QPR, the team I support. During that unnerving 45 minutes (I sidled up to a policeman and asked him to get me out of there at the end of the first half), I was struck not just by the nastiness all around me – monkey noises when a black player was on the ball, and so on – but by how ordinary, and often how middle-aged, these hate-filled fans were.
Football-connected violence could easily return. Harder policing is not the answer. Banning fans is ineffective, as are fines imposed on clubs. There is an awkwardly close relationship between what football clubs encourage – passionate and vocal fans who make the home stadium an intimidating place to visit – and the violence which they deplore. Every time fights break out at a match, the authorities at the club involved (and the same names appear down the years) shed crocodile tears and wring their hands despairingly. It would concentrate their minds, and those of their fans, if the sentence were simply that a number of games would subsequently take place, untelevised, unattended and behind closed doors. It would be punishment by dullness, the most effective deterrent to violence.
For those who argue such measures would take the passion out of the sport, here is an alternative solution. Since fighting one another causes such pleasure to certain fans, a Hooligan Cup could be held during the closed season. Tribes and firms from across the country would be locked into a suitable venue and allowed to fight it out to their hearts’ content. There is just a chance that, in the end, the survivors will realise the childish futility of it all.