THE DARK DAYS are over.
Even younger League of Ireland fans can remember the days when Friday night matches were followed by a minority of “supporters” squaring off for pitch battles in the streets and lanes surrounding grounds.
Some saw themselves as hard men, a firm drawing strength from the glamourised hooligan element of English football, believing that they were defending their club’s honour with skin, sticks and stones. More often than not, they were just looking for a fight.
This crowd trouble did untold damage to the league’s reputation. For those on the outside looking in, it created an image of volatile and combustible grounds where fans were putting their safety at risk for the sake of a game. For parents who wished to wean their young children off the Premier League diet, the league was something to approach with caution, a million miles away from the family-friendly atmosphere that exists around most grounds now.
That improvement did not come about overnight, nor did it come about by accident. It was the result of determined effort by the FAI, the Gardai and most of all, the clubs themselves who worked tirelessly to weed out a minority of troublemakers.
Shamrock Rovers know more than most about the difficulty in stamping out these undesirables. Without exaggerating the severity of the trouble during last weekend’s defeat away to Sligo, the club and board will be acutely aware of the need to maintain the positive standing which they have cultivated in recent years.
Even before Chris Turner’s sending off riled the travelling support, there was already evidence of unrest with objects thrown at Danny North when he unwisely chose to celebrate his opening goal directly in front of the Hoops fans.
Tensions came to a head following Turner’s red early on in the second half. The Rovers midfielder shouldn’t have raised his hands in retaliation to an initial shove by Alan Keane, but the fans’ frustration boiled over as they vilified the defender’s play-acting for conning referee Tomas Connolly into sending Turner off.
From that point on, Keane — who was playing at right-full, hugging the touchline directly in front of the away support — was hassled, harried and abused every time he took a throw-in in that neighbourhood. It all boiled over when a plastic bottle came from the stands and struck him on the back of the head.
Incidents like this, and the minority of “fans” who create them in venting their frustration, have no place in the league. Sadly it was not the only incident of its kind in the league last weekend. At Oriel Park, fourth official Phil Caschera had to have medical treatment on the sideline after he was allegedly struck by an object thrown from the stands.
In comparison to the hooligan brawls of yesteryear, these incidents are little more than infrequent examples of minor disorder. But they are still unwarranted and unwelcome and have the potential to damage a league which has improved its image dramatically of late.
The dark days are over. Let’s make sure we never slip back in that direction.
Airtricity League fixtures (all Friday, 7.45pm unless stated)
- Shamrock Rovers v Drogheda United (Friday, 7.05pm)
- Bohemian FC v Derry City
- Bray Wanderers v St Patrick’s Athletic
- Cork City v UCD
- Sligo Rovers v Shelbourne
- Dundalk v Monaghan United
- Limerick v Athlone Town
- Mervue United v Wexford Youths
- Longford Town v SD Galway
- Finn Harps v Waterford United