With backs to the wall, A-League must not flinch

More years ago than I care to count, after a soccer match in England, I found myself literally in a corner. From one direction, fans of the home club were advancing with noisy menace. From the other, the away fans were stampeding. The shops were boarded up, the pub doors locked and police abounded; everyone knew this was coming.

A policeman was about to shoo me into the maw of one gang or the other, then hearing my accent realised I was an innocent abroad and told me to stand behind him, pressing myself flat against a brick wall. A short, violent scuffle ensued, quickly broken up. 

Wanderers fans let off flares during the round 18 match against Melbourne Victory.
Rogue elements: Wanderers fans hold flares aloft at Etihad Stadium on Saturday. Photo: Getty Images

This was in Ipswich, scarcely a hotbed of soccer warfare. The visitors were Arsenal, hardly a touchpaper fixture. But this was at the frightening and anarchic height of hooliganism in the UK, at a time when organised mobs roamed the country under the loose aegises of soccer clubs, spilling blood and sometimes occasioning death. They had their own names, uniforms and rules, like militia.

In time, it became clear that they had little interest in soccer, but a lot in violent crime. One day while I was living in London, Chelsea's so-called Headhunters figured out the Underground station where visiting Leeds United fans would have to change trains and ambushed them there, where  there was no escape. 

England fans were the world's worst. Because of them, English clubs were disqualified from European competition for five years. The country despaired. A government report in 1986 said that "football may not be able to continue its present form for much longer". Part-answers were proposed: no away fans, identity cards for all fans, sterner penalties for offenders, fences, moats. In 1989, the Football Spectators Act was passed.

Change came with the formation of the Premier League, and it was not coincidental. Another report in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster mandated minimum standards for stadiums, not least that they were all-seaters. Other measures  were introduced, with civilising effect: alcohol bans, bans on racist chanting, CCTV cameras, more police, more stewards, bans for offenders. Prices were set high, altering the demographics. The money flowed in, the fan base broadened and the hoodlums were forced out. Society's values changed, and so did soccer's.


The English Premier League today is a brilliant spectacle.  Hooliganism has not been eliminated, but it has been marginalised. English fans have outlived the stigma of the past. "Gooners", for instance, was once the name of a rough and crude gang of Arsenal supporters, but now has been appropriated as a nickname for all the club's supporters. On a notional ladder of countries and their violent fans, England would now be well down the table.

The cleansing has paid off. Television can't get enough of it, and the Premier League can't get enough of television's money. It is now rich beyond compare. Players used to leave; now they come. Chelsea, this season's travails notwithstanding, became instead of a place to risk being blinded, a place to be seen.

Why raise all this here and now? Because it is the English mistake from which Australia can learn, the English lesson Australia should heed. The rump that is causing trouble in the A-League now, especially at Western Sydney Wanderers games, are like the original hooligans in that they are out not for love of the game, but their own tawdry amusement. No one who stands with his bare back to a match, and whose pyrotechnics bring it to a suffocated halt, can claim to be on the game's side.

The scale is smaller, the bloodshed minimal by comparison, but the principle is the same. They delude themselves that they are honouring the best traditions of European soccer, but they are crudely imitating the worst.  They are giving the sport a bad name, and deterring fans from it. It is the English effect, but from the other side of the corner: in England, bringing the hooligans to heel led to a rise in crowds and wellbeing, here a decline is threatening if there is no crackdown.

Authorities wring their hands, but the English lesson is that way follows will, and is worthwhile. Act now. Don't just threaten to deduct points; do it. Increase vigilance. If an offender can be identified in a crowd of 80,000 at the MCG, he must stand out even more in a crowd of 25,000 at AAMI Park. Levy fines. Enforce bans. Make clear that the police are like the bobby in Ipswich all those years ago, there to protect the innocent as well as descend on the guilty. Act now.

I'm not saying we need fences, moats and tear gas. I am saying we can make sure we never do.