A former hard nut has warned “super-hooligans” are operating in full force at matches across the UK, despite a common belief that football violence is largely a thing of the past.
Cass Pennant has described how dangerous Brits are causing havoc at non-league football games because it’s easier to get away with than at Premier League spectacles.
Hooliganism was endemic in our national game in the 1970s and 1980s and Pennant, a former leader in West Ham’s Inter City Firm, insisted the problem persists to this day.
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But authorities did clamp down on fan violence after an infamous FA Cup sixth round tie between Luton Town and Millwall at Kenilworth Road in 1985.
The frightening scenes saw Millwall fans riot after the 1-0 defeat and a knife was even thrown towards the home goalkeeper.
Luton’s manager at the time, David Pleat, remembered: “There were people being carried away on stretchers, fans on the edge of the pitch and players constantly looking up at their families because billiard balls were being thrown at the directors' box.
"I can't tell you much about the football, because there was so much else going on. It was completely out of control."
In response, football banning orders (FBOs) became the norm and policing and intelligence at football games went up many notches. The Violent Crime Reduction Act (2006) also allowed cops to remove fans they suspected of planning to cause mischief.
With more decisive action being taken, the view going into the 20th century was that football hooliganism had mostly been discarded to the history books.
But now, in his latest project, You're Going Home in a F*****g Ambulance: Hooligan Wars – The Inside Story, author Pennant has exposed an uglier truth.
He wrote: “Despite such claims, it has never really gone away. For the past two decades television has saturated the Premiership, inflating the cost of players to the clubs, and therefore ticket prices to the supporters.
“The casual terrace thug has been priced out of the market so it seemed he had simply gone elsewhere. The emphasis has shifted. Like mercury oozing across an uneven surface, football hooligans have found the cracks.
“Ironically, the success of banning orders has backfired on the football establishment. Hooligan firms denied access to their preferred stamping grounds are gravitating to the lower, non-league world.”
Pennant, who was introduced to the beautiful game the season after England’s 1966 heroics, said modern hooligans usually support two teams.
One is often their Premier League or Championship side and the other is a non-league outfit where they can go and start disturbances without the risks associated with the top flight.
Citing examples, he claimed some Leicester City thugs also follow Histon, Nottingham Forest yobs may go to Mansfield games and Wolves nutters are known to frequent Telford matches.
He explained that the smaller clubs were attractive because they were cheaper days out and you can stand on the terraces while having the “freedom to cause mayhem”.
Pennant, writing in his new book, added: “FBOs have become badges of honour and CCTV has bred defiance. It is arguable that the measures taken to curtail hooliganism have given rise to a new form in a different setting – the super-hooligan in the lower leagues.
“Inevitably their limited resources of this level of football club are insufficient to hire enough police or stewards to be able to cope with serious trouble when it occurs.
“Apart from unsegregated and non-seating areas in the grounds, there are other differences which effectively allow the hooligans to operate more freely.
“Alcohol rules are less restrictive and crowd security and pub policing are less stringent. Ticket costs are lower, and coach travel is often unsupervised.
“The standard of stewarding is erratic and non-league hooligans are less likely to be exposed by police intelligence or spotters. Town centres and train and coach stations are thinly policed by forces not geared to coping with widespread disturbances.
“The improvement in communications via mobile phones and the internet has given the hooligans wider scope for planning their tactics, and they frequently record their exploits for the glory of YouTube.”
The reformed hooligan said this environment was more appealing than the “repressive and expensive” Football League as he warned footie thugs are still thriving, just not where you would traditionally expect to see them.
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