England's night spoiled by hatred


  • Other Sport
  • Sunday, 06 Apr 2003

THE headlines were all about Wayne Rooney. The talk was all about a football match of huge passion and emotion which saw England leapfrog Turkey at the top of qualifying Group Seven and enhance the prospects of automatic qualification for the European Championship Finals. 

So why did a succession of intelligent, rational, fair-minded supporters phone in a national radio station on their way home from the Stadium of Light to proclaim: “I will never go to an England match again.” 

I make no apology for bringing up the subject after a match which went someway to demonstrating why football is by far the most compelling and irresistible sport known to man. 

Yes, we should be eulogising over Rooney and how a 17-year-old supplied the verve, imagination and fearless expression of sublime talent to transform an England side of timidity and torpor into one of surging anticipation. And we did marvel at his precocious skills, just as we delighted in the thrusting drive of Steven Gerrard, the steadying influence of Nicky Butt and the inspiration of David Beckham. 

We also recognised Sven-Goran Eriksson's courage in throwing in Rooney from the start in such a crucial match, when many critics reasoned it was too big a gamble, and welcomed the more obvious rapport the England coach appeared to have with his players. 

They were all memorable images. But the voice of those phone-in callers, whose senses admittedly were still sharp with the adrenalin of a heady night, should be ignored at football's peril. Because while most went home with Rooney's boyish looks but manly performance as their abiding memory, for others it was a night of simmering hate. 

I'm not talking about the predictable torrent of abuse which greeted Turkey's National Anthem. We have come to expect no more and no less from football's ignorant minority with small minds and big mouths. 

I'm thinking more of the families who witnessed the ugly skirmishes between rival English tribes in the streets outside the stadium. Those who saw riot police drawing batons and providing an escort for Turkish fans into the stadium. Those who read about almost 95 arrests. Those who saw members of the Turkey Under-21 team verbally abused at half-time when they innocently sought to buy a burger. 

Anyone who thought football hooliganism was dead now knows the truth. It is alive and well set once more on causing trouble wherever it can infiltrate. Perhaps the most worrying sight of all was that of young lads, barely 10, standing on their seats and being encouraged by their fathers to join in such venom as “Stand up if you hate the Turks”. 

Okay, perhaps you could substitute Man U or Leeds or the French or a million and one other prejudices which trip off the tongue without being set in any concrete bigotry. But what a dreadful example to impressionable youth. No wonder some supporters came to the conclusion in future they would rather be at home watching television than be an English football supporter. 

What can the FA or UEFA do? For one they can do the simple things right. Insist on perimeter stewarding which is not literally a standing joke and doesn't allow the mini-crowd invasions which greeted both English goals and caused simmering discontent between the backroom staffs of both teams. 

Remind men – coaches and players – who should know better not to indulge in highly public touchline spats which only serve to throw petrol on flammable situations.  

Ensure clubs have the resources to capture hooligans and bring them to swift justice. Pour more cash and resources into the fight against racism, much of which should involve encouraging high-profile players to take up the battle. 

And ban England supporters from October's return match with Turkey – the final qualifier, the one which will almost certainly decide which team go through and which could turn into a bloodbath. 

“A mindless minority spoiled a fantastic atmosphere,” was the verdict of Football Supporters Federation chairman Ian Todd. 

“A wonderful victory was besmirched by the reprehensible behaviour of some so-called supporters. They have let England down and there is no excuse.” 

Strong words and sad too that once again we should be having to waste breath on the dark side of football. Especially when we could be talking about England's brightest hope for a generation - Wayne Rooney. – PA 

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