Today, Luton Town play Millwall in the fifth round of the FA Cup.
Many of the towns residents are nervous, as the last time the two teams played in an FA Cup tie was back in 1985 and we all know how that turned out.
I remember it well, because I was there.
At the time, I was part of the Special Constabulary. I didn’t mind doing football duty, as there was usually some ‘excitement’ to help the afternoon pass by. We would escort visiting fans from the train station, walking the mile or so to the ground and then back again after the match had ended. Of course, the bulk of these fans were well behaved, fathers and sons, husbands and wives, all proper football enthusiasts.
But some of them were just idiots, who had come along for the chance to cause some bother. At the time, Millwall’s fans had a reputation for just that and we were all pretty nervous about them coming to the town. We expected trouble and they didn’t let us down.
Patrolling the streets before the game, in groups of three or four, I remember my colleague suddenly falling to the floor right next to me. He’d been hit on the head by a stone or piece of brick that had been lobbed from a group of visiting fans standing outside a pub drinking beer. There were four of us (now down to three) and about twenty of them, all jeering at us, so there was little we could do except drag our unconscious colleague round the corner and out of the way whilst we waited for backup. By the time it arrived, they had all dispersed.
My job was to patrol the streets during the game (along with many others – I wasn’t alone!) to provide a level of law enforcement outside whilst the majority of the force were inside the stadium. But trouble started inside the stadium and the police were losing the battle, so we were redirected in to the ground.
I arrived just as the second half was starting and was told to stand on the edge of the pitch with my back to the Millwall crowd along with a couple of dozen other coppers. I’ll readily admit that I was pretty scared.
We stood there – a very thin blue line – as the crowd threw abuse at us. Then they started throwing missiles: small stones, pens, sweets, anything they had to hand. The recently introduced pound coin had enough heft for it to make a perfect missile and several of these bounced off the back of my head. Of course, as policemen, we couldn’t pick them up, but I remember seeing one of the stewards picking them up, the pockets of his yellow hi-vis coat bulging with thrown money.
At the end of the match, the fans rioted, breaking down the barriers and invading the pitch. Seats were ripped from the stands and hurled at us.
We ran away.
As the battle ensued inside the ground, a group of us were redirected outside, to ensure the safety of the real fans as they tried to make their way home.
Pockets of trouble kept appearing all over the town centre and we were run ragged as we legged it from one side to the other. Usually, by the time we got there, the troublemakers had scarpered, leaving behind a trail of broken windows and whatnot.
It was a long night.
When I got back to the station I took off my coat only to see the back of it plastered with dried spittle and phlegm, and I questioned myself as to whether I really wanted to be doing this job anymore.
But that was then. Whilst I can understand the anxiety of some of the townsfolk over today’s game, I like to think that things have improved. Football hooliganism, whilst still being a problem, isn’t as widespread and as worrying as it once was.
I suppose that later today, we will find out.