Hooliganism, a phenomenon which grew rapidly among young football fans across the UK during the 1970s and 1980s has posed one of the biggest threats in the football industry.
A growing number of fans, who group themselves with others who support the same club into 'firms', organise fights with opposition fans of the clubs they face on matchdays.
Measures put in place to limit acts of hooliganism in English football, such as prohibiting the use of alcohol and introducing an identity card system have been effective in preventing violence in stadiums. However, it remains that football-related violence outside of stadiums is still very difficult to limit.
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A 1985 FA Cup quarter-final tie between Millwall and Luton Town saw one of the worst incidents of hooliganism that English football has experienced, dubbed the ‘Kenilworth Road riot’. Violence erupted several times during the game and after the final whistle, with fans ripping seats from the stands to use as projectiles, as well as shields. Police reports from that infamous day identified not only members of Millwall’s ‘Bushwackers’ firm and Luton’s ‘MIGs’ in the stands, but West Ham’s ‘Inter City Firm’, and Chelsea’s ‘Headhunters’.
The match, which ended 1-0 to Luton, was filmed on live television, giving Millwall a tainted reputation of being an epicentre of violence.
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Millwall’s ‘Bushwackers’, originally named the ‘F-Troop’, have garnered a reputation of being one of the toughest firms in the UK, and Millwall have been fined numerously for crowd disorder, as well as having had their stadium, ‘The Den’, closed on five occasions due to violent incidents.
One of the biggest tragedies in football history, the Heysel Stadium Disaster, occurred in the same year as the Kenilworth Road Riot.
An hour before the kickoff of the 1985 European Cup Final at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels between Liverpool and Juventus, a section of Liverpool fans managed to break through a wall, surging towards some Juventus fans. The Italian fans, in a desperate struggle to get away, were seen scrambling over each other, trampling some underneath, which led to the tragic death of 39 fans, with a further 600 sustaining injuries.
Consequently, English clubs were placed under a ban by UEFA from all European competitions indefinitely (eventually lifted in 1990/91). At this point, it was clear that the UK government and Football Association had to intervene.
In the 1950s, the total supporter attendances in the top four tiers of English football was at around 40 million in a season, whereas, in the years following the Heysel Stadium Disaster, total supporter attendances was down to 16 million in a season. The FA’s response was to bring in membership-only areas in the stadia, and to create stronger links between the clubs and their fan bases to promote a less aggressive environment between football spectators. The government planned to introduce an identity card system for all fans attending matches, so that supporters could be identified much more easily, and fans who had been banned from attending matches due to violence would not be able to enter the stadium.
Before the identity card system was introduced, 96 Liverpool fans tragically perished in the worst stadium-related disaster in English sports history.
3,000 Liverpool fans poured into the Leppings Lane stand of Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough stadium for their 1989 FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest, where the safe capacity was 1,600. Fans were being crushed, and in desperate attempts to get away from the crowds, were scrambling over each other to climb over the fences.
These same fences had been introduced by football clubs in the 1970s to allow greater control over crowds and to prevent pitch invasions. These fences which had trapped the crowds in previous incidents were promptly taken away, and stadia around the country became much safer.
In order to limit hooliganism, the government made it a criminal offence to: enter a stadium when drunk or in possession of alcohol, to possess alcohol on the journey to a football match, to throw an object towards the pitch or spectator areas, to enter the pitch without lawful excuse, to sing indecent or racist chants, and to tout tickets. This allowed the police to prosecute those who acted in a violent manner in and around a football stadium, and ban them from attending future matches, with CCTV aiding them in finding those who have acted indecently.
Additionally, the FA and the police work together to categorise games depending on the likelihood of violent scraps occurring between supporters. Based on the risk of violence, a low risk will result in only club security being present at the match, whereas if there is a high risk, police will be present in anticipation of any fights between fans. High-risk matches may also be moved to midday on a Saturday, to lessen the number of people who attend the match under the influence of alcohol. Alternatively, the match may be moved to a Sunday, when the cities are less busy, resulting in a lower chance of any altercations.
The police, however, have trouble preventing hooliganism from occurring outside of the stadia. Youth firms, which are growing in popularity across English football, highlight the fact that hooliganism has certainly not died, and transformed the nature of hooliganism to one of street violence.
The youths who are a part of these firms only seek to fight those who are also looking to fight, and because of this, they do not believe that the police should prosecute them. It is a lifestyle choice with young people who seek an adrenaline rush, which becomes very addictive, and hooligans often find it difficult to extract themselves from this environment which they have joined.