Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Souled Out

There are some sights that you simply don't see very often, and the game is a lot better off for many of their absence. Excess amounts of sand on the pitch were a staple of the groundsman's armoury against matches being called off in the early 1970s, but this short term measure ruined pitches and many a match at the same time. With this in mind, there was something of a retro feel to the match between Cardiff City and Spurs on Sunday afternoon. It wasn't just the rustic environment of Ninian Park, though this is clearly a ground that hasn't had an enormous amount done to it over the last twenty minutes or so. It was the extraordinary, baying crowd, who added so much to the occasion but also over-stepped the mark into behaviour that we have to condemn as unacceptable.

Now, first off, let me briefly point out that I am no great expert on football hooliganism, and I don't have a great deal of special interest either way in the fortunes of Cardiff City, so the majority of what follows is conjecture and musings. If you're looking for hard-hitting analysis, you'll be best off going elsewhere (no surprises there, then). It strikes me, though, that there may be something different about Cardiff City and its supporters - something which suggests that they still haven't shaken off the worst excesses of the hooligan era.

Twice in recent years they have taken on Premiership opposition in recent years in the FA Cup. Five years ago, they beat Leeds United 2-1 in an infamous match at Ninian Park. Seats were ripped up and thrown onto the pitch. Referee Andy D'Urso was hit by a coin from the crowd. At full-time, there was a full-scale pitch invasion. To use the vernacular, it "kicked off". One might have anticipated this. Cardiff's supporters have had a poor reputation for years, and Leeds have never completely shaken off the reputation that they earned during the 1980s. It was a highly charged match, with a contentious sending-off and a late winning goal. Last weekend, though, it was somewhat more difficult to see a justification for what went on. One loony got on the pitch and headed for the travelling Spurs supporters, arms aloft and seemingly wanting to take them all on. Another group smuggled a flare into the ground. Fighting broke out between the home and away supporters, and the last ten minutes were played out with a ring of stewards and riot police keeping them apart. It was like Heysel, Hillsborough and The Taylor Report had never happened. Of course, Spurs' travelling contingent weren't completely innocent in all of this, but what makes this happen at Cardiff?

Of course, it's worth pointing out that other clubs still have their problems. I could reel off a list of them now, and you'd recognise the names. But when was the last time you saw anything like a serious crowd disturbance inside a ground? It's well known that hooligan gangs, mindful of the massive police presence in and around grounds on match days, and aware that there will be dozens of CCTV cameras only too happy to get their faces on posters or inside tabloid newspapers. They have pre-arranged "meets" well away from anyone else. It's still moronic, pointless and ridiculous but, for the normal spectator, it is, if they have to fight, the preferred option. As an away supporter, I'd feel reasonably uncomfortable visiting about half a dozen Football League ground, but once inside I'd feel safe enough. If the match was anything like an important one, I can't say that I'd feel the same at Ninian Park.

I've read the book "Soul Crew" (and a staggeringly bad read it is as well, might I add), but other clubs have their neanderthal "firms", too. With their terrible, terrible clothing and their almost laughable names ("Border City Firm", anyone? They "represent" Carlisle United, of all things), they're an irrelevance in the modern game. But the others don't manage to get into the grounds any more. So, is there a problem at Cardiff and, if there is, what's the cause?

Well, the one thing that all the clubs with a "reputation" had was that they fell on particularly hard times during the 1980s. Stoke, Birmingham, Millwall, Wolves, Chelsea and Leeds all had a hard decade, and this may have been compounded by high unemployment in each different area. But I'm no sociologist, so step forward Sam Hammam. When Hammam breezed into Ninian Park, he played the siege mentality game that he had been playing at Wimbledon for years before. He played the nationalist card, pronouncing Cardiff (no doubt to the anger of Swansea and Wrexham fans, to say the least) as the team to represent the whole of Wales. In one of his less intelligent moves, he had his photograph taken with members of the Soul Crew more than once. The man is a fool, but you probably didn't need me to tell you that. The more pressing question is that of whether his leadership (and I'm thinking of the crowd-baiting at the Leeds match, here) was provocative and dangerous.

Honestly... I don't know, but I am minded to thinking that they would have to get their house in order, should they get promoted into the Premiership. They wouldn't able to get away with this sort of thing week in, week out.


Ed said...

I once encountered the Soul Crew. I was in a pub in central Cardiff after the League 2 play-off final between Southend and Lincoln. Lincoln fans had come in to watch the end of England's tour match in the United States and drown their sorrows with a quiet booze. A rabble of local cheese-headed cunts started drunkenly chanting about Cardiff City, as my soul died and crawled out of the door. Into a pile of spew and broken glass.

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