Andrew Warshaw: Hooliganism reminder that England 2018 can take nothing for granted

Andrew Warshaw

England’s 2018 World Cup campaign team have been at great pains to highlight the progress that has been made since the dark days of football hooliganism that became known around the world as “the English disease”.

The last thing they needed, with the hugely symbolic handover of the bid books less than a fortnight away, was any kind of distraction from the job at hand, any kind of reminder of the violence which, a generation ago, regularly blighted English football.

Imagine all the head-shaking, then, that must have accompanied the disgraceful scenes witnessed at Sheffield Wednesday and Luton over the weekend, a throwback to some of the worst excesses of the 1970s and 1980s.

Luckily, watching English football these days is, in general, as safe as houses. No-one was killed or seriously injured in either disturbance on Sunday and Monday and separate investigations have been launched into both.

But the fact they occurred within 24 hours of each suggests that they were not mere isolated incidents. That when the stakes are highest - one match was a relegation showdown, the other a vital playoff game - tempers can still flare with dire consequences.

Neither game was a top-flight fixture, in fact the Luton-York matchup was a non-league affair. But that makes little difference as far as image and perception are concerned. Luton’s rickety stadium was packed to the rafters and television pictures of frightened players and seething fans will by now have been whisked round the world, a damning indictment of what can still happen. Worse still, perfect ammunition for rival countries campaigning against England for 2018.

The sight of York City’s trapped players cowering like frightened animals at the back of a stand, heads covered to avoid being struck by bottles and missiles, their path to the dressing room blocked by angry home fans, told its own sickening story.

As did, 24 hours earlier, the trouble that flared at Hillsborough. Yes Hillsborough, once again the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons 21 years after the disaster that killed 96 people, English football’s saddest day.

Overcrowding and fan violence are totally unrelated, of course. But the sight of rival supporters clashing on the pitch following the sellout Sheffield Wednesday-Crystal Palace showdown - and of Palace defender Clint Hill requiring the protection of stewards as he headed to the dressing rooms - will only serve to question the efficiency of stewarding and rekindle memories of some of the game’s most painful excesses of the past.

In all, some 15 fans from both matches have so far been arrested. Not that many and no doubt the perpetrators will be banned for life. Sheffield Wednesday and Luton are bound to face further sanctions in addition to suffering the pain of failing to achieve their respective goals.

The Football Association will want to make a stand at this sensitive time. But the damage may well already have been done. Committed members of FIFA’s 24-strong Executive Committee may not switch their votes simply as a result of what happened over the Bank Holiday weekend. Besides, there is no precedent of violence at local level being repeated when it comes to a tournament as vast as the World Cup.

But little things can make a difference to undecided voters. The waverers among FIFA might, just might, now be asking themselves whether English fans can be trusted. An unwanted challenge for the bid team as they approach the hugely important landmark of the bid book handover in Zurich on May 14.

Andrew Warshaw is a former sports editor of The European, the newspaper that broke the Bosman story in the 1990s, the most significant issue to shape professional football as we know it today. Before that, he worked for the Associated Press for 13 years in Geneva and London. He is now the chief football reporter for insideworldfootball