Thursday, April 05, 2007
Anyone who can work out what I might have been doing in Istanbul in May 2005 will quickly realise that I'm no fan of Manchester United.
The team that Fergie built always annoyed me. Not their successes. Every trophy gets won by someone each season. But the fact that the authorities always seemed to side with them. Jammy decisions, long minutes of extra time when they are losing, no away penalties at Old Trafford...
It all added up to a genuine annoyance factor.
But now there's a new reason to be concerned about Manchester United. Let's rewind briefly to the Eighties to explain this fully.
In the late Seventies and early Eighties, English teams dominated European football. In only a few seasons, Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa all claimed the European Cup. Other teams like Ipswich and Tottenham claimed the UEFA Cup.
Even Everton and Alex Ferguson's Aberdeen won the Cup Winners Cup. Europe simply couldn't compete with the British footballing juggernaut. The only rivals they had were each other.
Then came Heysel. The facts of Heysel, despite a number of different investigations, remain unclear. But what is certain is that UEFA approved a delapidated and dangerous stadium for the 1985 European Cup final.
Then local police, who swiftly lost control of the Juventus and Liverpool fans flooding to the game, allowed overcrowding to develop to dangerous levels in some parts of the ground. An hour before the game, trouble began between the two sets of fans.
It is believed by a number of eye-witnesses that members of the infamous Chelsea Headhunter gang were responsible for initiating the violence from within the Liverpool crowd. Whether this is true or not, the trouble began in the Liverpool end.
Then the wall collapsed, and in the aftermath, 39 people died, mostly Juventus fans but including one Irishman Patrick Radcliffe. UEFA made sure the game continued despite the deaths, but once the game was over, they made Heysel - which was in part their own fault for choosing a deathtrap for a European final - the excuse to throw all English teams out of Europe.
It was a popular decision with clubs from other countries. They felt they might stand a chance of winning something again. English clubs were banned from European competition for five years, and Liverpool six.
While occasional trouble still marred the terraces in Britain in the Nineties, it was nowhere near as bad as the hooliganism had been only a few years before. Sporadic, occasional terrace or post-match scraps would occur, but nothing remotely like on the scale it had previously.
But following a series of studies, the removal of terracing and the creation of the Premiership, soccer violence became extremely rare in Britain by the time that English clubs were permitted back into European competition.
And so to this season, and why we should be concerned about Manchester United. Last night, in Rome, Manchester United fans fought with Italian police in and out of the ground. No doubt, the London press will highlight harassment of fans, claim the police were heavy-handed, point out how local 'ultra' Roma fans attacked and targetted the poor English.
I'm sure this will occur, because that's exactly what happened the last time that Manchester United fans were involved in trouble abroad. When was that, you may ask? Less than two months ago, actually, when again Manchester United fans were involved with clashes with police, in France on this occasion.
Now, once again British teams are becoming dominant in European competition. Liverpool winning the Champions League, Arsenal making last season's final, Chelsea perennially in the semis. Even clubs like Middlesborough and Celtic reaching the UEFA Cup final.
As the Guardian's Paul Doyle has astutely pointed out, such is the financial dominance of English teams that, more even than during the early Eighties, English football dominance in Europe is set to become the norm.
So, when Man United's fans get into trouble on the terraces with police in two different countries in two months, I start wondering what the common denominator is. And the answer is, of course, Man United's fans.
And then I think back to how Heysel was used as an excuse to break English dominance of European football competitions, and I wonder how many more terrace rampages from United's band of travelling thugs it will take before UEFA decides to ban English teams in Europe once again?
Update, Friday 6th: And now we have Spurs fans rioting in Seville in Spain, and it has emerged that UEFA chief Michel Platini wrote to every FA in Europe last month in strong terms warning about violence being the poison that is killing football. How long before English clubs get banned? One more incident? Two?