This week’s clashes between Millwall and West Ham fans saw NORMAN GILLER suffer a disturbing flashback to sport’s “Dark Ages”
So now it can be told. I am constantly asked why I walked out on my prize job as No1 football writer with the Daily Express in the winter of 1973 for the minefield of freelancing. The answer in one word: Hooliganism.
It all came flooding back to me this week like a bad dream as West Ham and Millwall thugs caused the game grievous bodily harm.
Back in the 1970s â€” categorised as the “Dark Ages” by Home Secretary Alan Johnson â€” the sort of horror scenes witnessed at Upton Park on Tuesday were commonplace.
Hooliganism was football’s biggest problem in the 1970s and running on into the mid-80s, when the horrors of Heysel and Hillsborough (okay, not directly connected to hooliganism) triggered a ban for English clubs from all European competitions.
We could easily slide down that sickly slope again and become the pariahs of football unless the problem is stamped on quickly and decisively.
It was April 1972 and West Ham were home to Tottenham in a London derby. I reported it for the Daily Express, and as I walked from my car parked off Green Street to the ground, I saw a gang of about a dozen young men running wildly through the crowd heading for the match.
They were fairly easy to spot because they were all dressed and made up Clockwork Orange style, copying the characters in the violent Stanley Kubrick film â€” based on the Anthony Burgess novel â€” that had been released the previous year.
Their faces were painted in the clown-like way featured by Malcolm McDowell in the main role, and they were barging aside anybody who got in their path â€” the physical pushing accompanied by a stream of expletives.
It was a mesmerising and at the same time terrifying sight, and I â€” take your pick between cowardly and sensibly â€” planted myself against a wall to avoid them.
As a former sports editor of the local paper, I had good police contacts and called into the mobile police caravan to see if they had spotted the troublemakers.
Not only had they seen them, but four had been arrested and ordered to remove their footwear. I was shown the reason and got Express photographer Norman “Speedy” Quicke to take photographs.
Lined up on the floor in the caravan were four pairs of heavy steel-toed boots.
I wrote a piece for the Monday paper about the new frightening face of football, accompanied by shots of the Clockwork Orange gang in the crowd and pictures of the boots.
Editor Derek Marks called me in and congratulated me on “a cracking piece”. It was being promoted from the sports pages to the main leader page, with an accompanying profound piece by the leader writer.
As I sat in the glow of the praise, I got another call to the Editor’s office. Standing alongside Derek was the duty lawyer.
He made it clear that there was no way he could allow my story to be published unless I could produce evidence that they had conducted acts of violence.
“The fact that they were wearing these steel-capped boots could be easily explained by any half-wise solicitor that the men had come straight from work wearing industrial boots,” the lawyer said. “You cannot possibly use the photograph, particularly if it is police evidence.”
A sub-editor was ordered to rewrite my piece as a salute to the creativity of the Clockwork Orange gang â€” “for bringing a much needed splash of colour to the grey face of football.”
I demanded my name be taken off it and went into a sulk.
Over the next year, travelling to and from matches became an increasing nightmare, with hooligans running up and down the corridors of the trains causing mayhem. It was as if you were taking your life in your hands every time you visited a football ground.
I could see no end to it, and it was the main reason I gave up that prize job in an era when Express readers could be counted by the millions rather than the thousands.
In the same season that I quit, Bill Nicholson â€” the most honest and dedicated of managers â€” was reduced to tears when so-called Tottenham supporters ran riot during the UEFA Cup final against Feyenoord in Rotterdam.
Now, more than 30 years on, the hooligans are back on the horizon.
Stop them now, or say goodbye to any hope of staging the 2018 World Cup finals in England.
Read previous Norman Giller columns by clicking here.