Thursday, 24 April 2014

Those weren’t the days

For the past couple of years I’ve been training my 11-year-old niece, Susie, to be an apprentice Hornet. She gamely froze her little backside off at the Vic last season during the 4-0 win against Huddersfield (featuring that goal), and on Saturday she enjoyed the Ipswich game – I think it helped that we were sitting directly behind the 1881, so the atmosphere was good. Anyway, she’s keen to go again.

Her parents have no interest in football, but they do live a stone’s throw from Stamford Bridge, so they keep an eye on Chelsea’s affairs. The other week, when I was round there for dinner, my sister-in-law anxiously brought up a story she’d read about Chelsea fans going on the rampage in Paris en route to their Champions League game with PSG. So Susie naturally asked why anyone would do that, and soon we were trying to explain the concept of hooliganism to her.

Inevitably, she eventually asked how much football-related violence I’d actually seen. For those of us of a certain age, this is the equivalent of ‘What did you do in the war, Grandad?’ I automatically played it down, but afterwards I found myself trying to remember what I had actually witnessed. This is what I remember:

  • Standing on the Vicarage Road End terrace once when everyone suddenly started moving away from the central section, because the away fans had apparently ‘taken’ it
  • The home game against West Ham early in our first season back in Division Two, when the Hammers fans invaded the pitch and police horses were used to clear them off
  • My one and only trip to Kenilworth Road, when we emerged after the game to find bricks and bottles raining down on us and had to leg it back to the car

And that’s pretty much it, to be honest.

Much more prevalent, though was the sense of threat that accompanied football matches in the 70s and 80s – especially away from home. It meant that, on visits to grounds like Upton Park and Highbury, we tied our scarves around our waists, under our coats, and didn’t get them out until safely inside the home end; that, on trips to the Midlands, we didn’t dare talk too loudly on the way to the ground, for fear that our accents would betray us to the local psychos; and that we spent a lot of time being escorted to and from grounds by files of grim-faced policemen.

It all seems a long time ago now, in this age of Champions League pomp and circumstance and Sky’s relentless promotion of football as fun for all the family. But the habits acquired in those years have never really worn off. When I went to see the Hornets play at the New Den a couple of weeks ago (travelling on public transport), I didn’t dare wear my Watford shirt or scarf – just in case...

Meanwhile, in the past couple of years, I’ve had a couple of nerve-wracking train journeys in carriages packed with Palace fans where the sense of menace has been palpable, and it felt as if certain individuals just needed the slightest provocation to turn nasty.

And now I read that Watford fans visiting Loftus Road on Monday were subjected to 80s-style police escorts and searches. I was going to say that I hope that, if Susie does go on to become a football fan, her experience of matchdays is free from even the threat of violence. But, even after all these years, I’m not that optimistic.

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