Somebody once said that the only two things certain in life are death and taxes. To that cheerful list might be added rain in a West Wales summer, and that at some stage in the football season there would be crowd trouble. If events during the recent Birmingham derby were not entirely unpredictable, the circumstances of their occurrence certainly raise questions, and may well draw a response from the authorities. Other clubs, including the Swans, ought to consider the broader implications, although few are renowned for their ability to stand back and see the bigger picture.
Much comment has been made of the behaviour on the pitch that evening, and it seems fair to say that Dion Dublin in particular appeared “wound up” before either his appalling tackle from behind on Robbie Savage, or the subsequent head butt. Fewer questions appear to have been raised about the decision to play a volatile fixture on a Monday evening to suit Sky TV schedules. After events in the first game most impartial observers would have said the tension in this fixture needed winding down a notch or two, rather than being added to by playing under lights before a crowd who had the opportunity of copious pre-match drinking. Throw in Sky’s pre-match build up which was not short on hyperbole and it all added up to a potent mixture. The more cynical observer might also have pondered on the amount of coverage to the post match troubles given in certain daily newspapers.
If the publicity the incidents attracted were exacerbated by the match being live on Sky, then the popular myth that crowd violence has disappeared with the advent of the Premier League and all-seater stadiums was given the lie. Few regular fans have been fooled into thinking that that trouble has disappeared from football rather than being hidden out of sight away from grounds or in the lower divisions. Events played out at another game last year also involving Birmingham City proved conclusively that for many clubs, despite their best efforts, serious disturbances are never too far away.
The scenes outside Millwall’s New Den following last years play off semi-final were quite unbelievable, and bore a stunning resemblance to some of the world’s war zones rather than the aftermath of a football match. The television images of burning and overturned cars were truly shocking, and the resultant pressure on the club to turn matters around has seen draconian measures taken. This season has been a compulsory membership scheme introduced, with non-members being unable to gain admission. This has been coupled with a ban on the away fans on any potentially “difficult” fixture. Ironic that scenes resembling the riot caused by the issue that brought down Margaret Thatcher should result in the implementation of a scheme essentially similar to the one she planned for football as a whole in the late 1980s. Debate has raged amongst Millwall fans as to how deserved or effective this scheme will be. What seems certain is that with the issue of clubs’ legal liability to their local communities and new proposals relating to the methodology of police charging to cover matches, the club had to act even if they were not pushed.
Also undeniable is that Millwall’s home gates have suffered dramatically as the concept of uncommitted or floating fans turning up on the day for an attractive fixture is dead. The recent visit of table topping Portsmouth drew less than 10,000 through the gate whereas last season the club could have reasonably expected 15,000 plus for a similar fixture. Whilst some of the lost revenue can be offset against lower policing costs, what cannot be compensated for is the potential loss of future supporters. The possibility of Millwall being slowly strangled financially by these means is very real. Both the police and the government are likely to watch the results of this experiment with interest. If deemed successful there is a very real possibility of similar arrangements being forced on other clubs with bad reputations. If the whispers of new insurance requirements and increased liability for police costs outside stadiums become hard policy then expect clubs themselves to have to take draconian measure to ensure their very survival. Either way, there is a very real threat to clubs who are perceived as being trouble spots.
Fool to the Fire
At around the same time that the streets of SE14 were being turned into something resembling a no go area, trouble again raged at those other “usual suspects”, Cardiff City, following their play off defeat at the hands of Stoke. This was not the first or last occasion last season that Ninian Park witnessed ugly crowd scenes. The leniency and reasoning behind the Welsh FA’s treatment of the disturbances at the Leeds FA Cup tie beggared belief. Never short of a PR line, Sam Hammam blamed an anti-Welsh conspiracy in the English press. To trivialise the issue in this way does Wales no good in the wider world, yet once again there was little dissent from the Welsh media. Neil Kinnock might justifiably complain about his stereotypical portrayal by certain English newspapers but Wales would have been done better service if Mr Hammam had kept his head low amongst the pile of thrown bottles.
Indeed, almost openly mocking Sam’s stance, two opportunistic members of the “Soul Crew” brought out a book glorifying their hooligan activities. The Hammam approach appears on the face of it to do little to actively deal with what is an undoubted problem at Cardiff. If he was belatedly forced to abandon his position at the epicentre of potential disturbances by giving up his inflammatory walks around the pitch, then it seems he was unrepentant of his policy of befriending known troublemakers and even putting them on the payroll. Clearly times are not as rosy at Ninian Park as the Welsh media might like to pretend when in order to boost crowds Sam has to resort to paying known thugs to turn up.
The former Mr Wimbledon’s justification that he was trying to bring known offenders “on-side” would have more credibility if there had been a resultant improvement in behaviour of the Cardiff crowd. Subsequent events suggest that this has not happened. In fact, a rather more sinister interpretation of Sam’s activities would be to draw parallels with South America, where particularly in Argentina the notorious “barras bravas” hooligans are sponsored by club owners to keep dissidents amongst the support in their place. The journalist Graeme Lloyd has already found out that Mr Hammam doesn’t take kindly to criticism, and one harbours suspicions that Ninian Park may not be one of the easier places to be a fanzine editor in coming months. Needless to say, the Welsh FA have been quiet on the issue. The overall impression is of heads being stuck in sand, and of little serious being done to address a problem which has been part and parcel of Cardiff City since the 1970s.
Red Shirts, Red Faces?
If the problem were solely limited to Cardiff City then few Swans fans would lose much sleep. Unfortunately, the “ignore it and hope it will go away” stance of both the Cardiff club and the Welsh FA in relation to certain sections of the Cardiff support has a knock on effect in relation to support for the national team. This is not limited to the idiots who insist on wearing their Bluebirds shirts to Wales games. Sadly, as anybody who has followed Wales away will testify, there are a group of Cardiff fans who make following the national team a major test of resolve. Theoretically the sale of away match tickets to Wales games is monitored by authorities to prevent known trouble-makers travelling. However, at Bologna in 1999 it was difficult to believe that the busload of shaven-headed potbellied characters who were singing about their impending trip to Millwall were to a man free of football related convictions. Sadly, one gets the impression that that in the past the Welsh FA have been so desperate to sell tickets that few questions have been asked about the character of some of those purchasing.
Up until recently this has not been perceived as a major problem due to the team’s lack of success in tournament qualification, and the relatively small numbers travelling. The impending away game in Italy and the possibility of qualifying for Euro 2004 could change all of that. One would like to think that following a successful Wales team abroad could be a similar experience to that of our Celtic cousins in Ireland and Scotland. However, it would be foolish to rule out the possibility of certain Cardiff fans taking a rather more “English” approach, and even fighting out local rivalries on the streets of Lisbon. For Wales to qualify for a major tournament would be a dream come true for most Welsh fans. For it to become a symbol of national disgrace would be manna from heaven for the rugby lobby. The Welsh FA could act now to try to deal with the problem, but don’t hold your breath. That cloud free West Wales summer may have to happen first.
Clearing From The West
Not that we can be complacent at the Vetch. It can be argued that there doesn’t seem to be a problem of crowd violence at Swansea to the same level as at Cardiff. However, there is a certain element who persist in giving Swansea fans in general a reputation as 70s throwbacks and of the city being a hostile place to visit. More seriously, there are a relatively small number of persons who come out of the woodwork for certain high profile matches, normally involving teams who also have a “reputation”. Sadly, the behaviour of this minority together with their ability to influence some more easily led sections of our support could be prejudicial to our club’s future viability. Many of us hoped that the tragic death of Terry Coles would have shown those who would cause trouble where such actions can lead, and led to a greater sense of perspective. Sadly, that hope disappeared the following season at Millwall.
Why should we be concerned if we do not have a widespread problem and are only prone to isolated outbreaks of violence and unpleasantness? There are two aspects to the problem, legal and commercial, which are closely connected. Legal sanctions might include compulsory membership schemes, mandatory public liability insurance and mammoth policing bills. Commercially, a poor reputation or bad experience can put off potential support.
One might wonder why compulsory membership schemes might once again be a possible agenda. Firstly, for better or worse, the current government have shown that they are not afraid to get involved in issues of “anti-social behaviour”. Secondly, the thought of the scenes in Belgium in 2000 being repeated in Portugal is not one that the government will be keen on. Thirdly, the conditions surrounding football have changed dramatically since 1989. At that point the game was still “one family” to a large extent, and there was a common problem amongst clubs of declining attendances. It was in nobodies interest to deter potential fans from attending matches and the big clubs were of one voice with the small in opposing the moves.
However, the interests of the big clubs no longer coincide with the small following football’s 90s boom. The majority of premiership clubs now regularly sell out their games, and tickets are at a premium, particularly for grounds such as Old Trafford. Many clubs almost fill their grounds with season ticket holders, whilst the remaining seats are sold to club members only. These season ticket and membership monopolies are positively welcomed by the clubs who are more or less guaranteed a seasons sell outs. As a by-product they provide a commercial database with which to bombard fans with various other products. Many large clubs are looking with great interest at smart card technology which will enable members to effectively buy match tickets, replica shirts etc on the same card. Commercial forces appear to have accomplished what the law and order lobby couldn’t in the case of “attractive” clubs. If a compulsory membership scheme is mooted by a government losing patience with football’s attempts to put it’s own house in order, don’t expect too much protest from the Premiership elite. However, one club’s commercial opportunity can be a suffocating restriction in the case of others. This season it is necessary to be a member for all practical purposes to see matches at either Charlton or Millwall, for entirely different reasons. Charlton’s well marketed voluntary money spinner could be Millwall’s imposed nemesis.
In our current position at Swansea any form of compulsory membership scheme would slowly strangle the club of casual or new support, and totally destroy the commendable recent efforts of the board to attract people through the gate. Further, higher public liability insurance premiums or policing costs, if not fatal to the club’s viability, would certainly be a drain on resources that could otherwise have been put into upgrading the playing staff. For example, a fine for a pitch invasion could adversely affect our chances of being able to offer the likes of Britton or Martinez acceptable terms for next season.
Brave New World
In any event, leaving aside government moves, there are sound commercial reasons for the current board at the Vetch to be pro-active on this issue. Recent weeks have seen a series of positive measures designed to attract bigger support meet with success. If we can survive on the field and thrive next season then there is every reason to believe similar schemes could yield regular gates of 6-10,000. This is a solid base upon which the club can genuinely build support for the future. Welsh rugby is in disarray at both club and national level and there is a new generation of fans out there to be won over. It is for the board to try to seize the moment. A little entertainment and success on the pitch could see support grow. Reports of trouble and unpleasantness could see that potential new support disappear overnight.
Atmosphere at a football match is part and parcel of the experience. If we didn’t want that electric atmosphere we would probably go to non-league football or club rugby matches. Support for the team should be loud, passionate, and within certain limits, intimidating. Those limits are set out in the law. A passionate atmosphere should be part of a positive experience. Violence and unpleasantness are for the vast majority of people a negative one. Loudly encouraging the team is one thing. Illegal acts are another.
The club is perfectly within it’s rights to ensure that anybody acting illegally or unpleasantly can be removed from their property and prevented from returning. Too often in the past the previous administrations have stuck their heads in the sand and pretended that either a problem didn’t exist, or that there was nothing they could do about it. There has been ineffective policing and stewarding and lip service paid to certain aspects of crowd control. There seems to be a fear that pro-active steps could be misrepresented in the press as an admission of a problem bigger than it actually is. However, the current board should look at the example of Charlton where an energetic campaign to deal with illegal and unpleasant behaviour, combined with a series of initiatives to encourage law abiding fans, led to the success of their “Target 10,000” scheme. If taking positive action against a few means that a couple of thousand others come and stay, surely this has to be worth it. The commercial interests and very future of the club should not be prejudiced by the failure to deal with a relative handful of people.
All of this is not meant to overstate a problem. To date this season the only reported “unpleasantness” has come in the match at Wrexham. However, the fixture list has thrown up one fixture that is a potential tinderbox. The Hull City game is likely to see a large away following who contain a troublesome element. The fact that it will be their final away game of the season is likely to increase that following. That it is at Swansea is likely to increase the troublesome element. Certain people in Swansea will be attracted by the possibility of confrontation. Add in that it could be a “must-win” game and a potentially very emotional day for us and the dangers are obvious. We are very likely to need big and passionate support that day. However, the wrong sort of support could undo all the good work of the board since Christmas.. The board has to think whether it wishes to be pro-active ahead of the fixture, or have to be reactive after.
Proud to be a Swan
The remedy can be a combination of carrot and stick. Unfortunately there are always likely to be those for whom only draconian measures will work. Shed no tears for those who would damage the club – in their own way they rank alongside Lewis and Petty. For the others who may be easily led there is a more positive precedent which the club should try to nurture. Twenty years ago Scottish fans had a dreadful reputation, ranking alongside England. Somewhere along the line they decided that if the English fans prided themselves on a hooligan reputation that they would become well behaved to be as different to England as possible. These days the Scots are amongst the most welcome at any tournament. Certain sections of Cardiff City support has for years prided itself on it’s problem image. Sadly, an imitative minority sometimes attach themselves to the Swans attempting to be some sort of second rate Cardiff. Is it too much to think that we could also pride ourselves on being as different to Cardiff as Scotland to England?
One of the previous pieces in this column drew responses which attempted to draw parallels between the Cardiff-Swansea situation and Barcelona-Espanyol. That comparison, frankly, is rubbish, with no historical basis. However another comparison is more interesting. Cardiff are a club with a hooligan reputation run by a publicity conscious individual. We have a much smaller reputation for trouble and consequently greater potential be a community based club. Is the future analogy of our Charlton to their Millwall one that would be wholly far fetched? Our Scotland to their England?
Ultimately this issue lies with the board, and to a lesser extent the trust. They are the ones who decide which way forward this club goes, and what sort of club it will be. There exists a wonderful opportunity to turn the club into a genuine community asset. Hopefully they will not allow this goal to be prejudiced by the actions of those who don’t genuinely care for the club. The board should not ape their predecessors who have occasionally made the right noises but when called upon, looked away. Rather like Arsenal defenders with personal problems, we can only resolve this problem if we first acknowledge that it exists, and needs to be attacked rather than ignored. It is the club’s problem, and it is for the board to resolve before either the matter is put in the hands of the law, or before potential broader support is frightened away.
Many ordinary fans have shown their dedication to the club this season by putting their hands in their pockets for the various Trust initiatives. What a shame if that money is effectively swallowed up paying fines imposed for the actions of a few hangers on. More draconian sanctions could defeat even the Trust’s best efforts. The board can remove the storm clouds from the West Wales horizon and make the prospects bright. They shouldn’t underestimate the danger that to fail to do so could result in death and taxes if the wind blows in the wrong direction.