When the football team I support, West Bromwich Albion, first got promoted to the Premier League 20 years ago, our first away game was at Arsenal and, within half an hour, we were three goals down. I was most fed up. At this point the unmistakable smell of cannabis wafted over us visiting supporters packed in the away end. The vibe was very much of the old TV adverts for Hamlet cigars, featuring people being calmed by smoking after experiencing various disappointments. I have barely touched drugs, but if I’d been offered a puff of something at that moment to take the edge off my pain, I might well have done so.
There is a school of thought that part of the reason football hooliganism fell out of fashion for a while was that stuff like cannabis and ecstasy became the fans’ drugs of choice. I’m told these substances are more about peace and love than hate-filled rampages. Alcohol, of course, is more about the latter than the former.
Here’s what happens when you go to away games these days. At least, here’s what happens if you follow West Brom, but I can’t imagine it’s very different with other clubs. Upon entering the stadium through the turnstiles into the visitors’ end, you find yourself on a concourse. A range of overpriced food and drink will be available, including rather weak lagers. Always, but always, there will be a large group of younger fans, loosely arranged in a circle, chanting their heads off and making a terrific noise. The chants will either feature words venerating our club or more unpleasant words denigrating other clubs. This choir will tend to be very animated – leaping around, throwing around fair amounts of that overpriced, understrength beer.
This kind of thing happens at home games, too, but it’s more spread out. Away matches are more intense because the fans who travel are more dedicated and, arguably, more passionate. Also, kept together in one small part of the ground, and greatly outnumbered, just being there feels like an act of defiance.
It was in the away end at Leicester City that, with embarrassing naivety, I once wondered aloud to a copper what on earth this lot had been drinking. “Drink is less of a problem these days,” he sighed. “It’s more about drugs. For the price of a few cans of lager. they can get absolutely wired. And it’s harder to police on trains and to stop them bringing it in.” This was seven years ago. Judging by the scenes ahead of the Euro final last summer, things haven’t much improved.
I was outside the away end at Millwall on Saturday chatting to the handler of a sniffer dog, a beautiful wire-haired pointer. He told me he was trained to identify anyone carrying the scent of “pyros” – flares etc – and drugs. Upon catching a whiff of either of these things on anyone, he said, the dog would go up to the person in question, sit down and look up at him. Right on cue, his dog did what my dog does, less usefully, when he sees a squirrel – lurches away, all but tearing your arm off. He took up position: seated before a dismayed-looking West Brom fan. The handler approached the bloke and asked, in a low voice, if he was carrying any drugs. “Not today!” I have blurted out. I advised the fellow to come up with a better defense than that if the matter got to court, which it won’t.
We lost the game 2-0, which caused some of our fans to stage a mini-riot, damaging a toilet, tearing up seats and letting off flares. So it appears the odd pyro slipped past our pointer. Perhaps some drugs had got through, too, or had already been taken outside the ground. Or perhaps the perpetrators were just idiots, and, as far as I know, dogs aren’t yet able to sniff out idiocy.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism