BY CHARLES DUCKSBURY
When you hear old women talking about football on the bus, then you know something big must have happened. If the old women are talking on the bus in Rotherham about football, then it must be gargantuan. On Saturday, Millwall fans descended on the town and proceeded to enhance their reputation, fighting with opposition fans, throwing things at people and smashing whatever was in their way, whether it be some netting or a disabled mans car (as he was being lifted into it.)
But there were also unfounded rumours. No, a steward didn’t have a cardiac arrest and die (she just had a brick land on her head) and no, Millwall fans didn’t punch any children (though they were attacking the Family Stand.)
But regardless of what happened, the situation was entirely avoidable, and some serious forward thinking is required in the future to avoid such incidents again.
Since Rotherham moved from Don Valley Stadium to the New York Stadium, the number of violent incidents in or around the stadium are almost non-existent, bar the odd pushing match outside which was quickly split up by elder fans telling kids to ‘behave your’sens’.
Even derby matches with Sheffield Wednesday and United passed by relatively quietly, though there were incidents in the town centre. Actually, inside the stadium, just the usual pointing and singing, nothing substantial and certainly nothing for the 15-year-old Danny Dyer wannabe’s to get excited about.
I’m not a supporter of Rotherham United, but I’ve spent all but the first three years of my life in a pit village just outside the town. Though I’m very proud of being born in Sheffield, I also hold Rotherham in deep affection, and though my birth certificate doesn’t say so, I pretty much regard it as my home town. I’m a fourth generation Sheffield Wednesday fan, and despite Millers fans regarding Wednesday as their biggest rivals, I certainly don’t reciprocate that hatred, and due to the two clubs not ever spending a significant time in the same division, no rivalry has really built up. Which is why when Millwall fans started causing trouble, I felt a touch defensive of things, angry that they were causing problems for people who were friends and family.
I was working in the press box for the game, and due to the events ending up covering what happened for the Mirror. When Rotherham scored a late winner in a 2-1 win, the Millwall fans who had clearly arrived for trouble saw the perfect opportunity. They waded into the netting separating the two fans, before fighting with police and stewards, throwing objects, then carrying on the fight outside. All eyes were on the away end, things like this hadn’t been seen for a generation in the town. Ironically, the last couple of occasions of real all-out violence for a Rotherham game came against Swansea, and Millwall, back in December 2000. On that occasion, The Millers won 3-2 and the Londoners smashed up the old Railway End at the now empty Millmoor. I looked around and saw all ages staring to their right. Young kids (though I suspect they didn’t really understand what was happening), right through to old men, shaking their heads.
Back in the 80’s, thanks to what people have now told me, I doubt what happened on Saturday would even make a couple of lines in the local paper. But this is something that hasn’t been seen, certainly around here, for a long time. What happened inside was moderate in comparison to what happened outside, but I only want to report what I saw with my own eyes. After seeing riot police run across the goalmouth after the game towards the main stand, I understood something big must have been happening. I stuck my head out of the players entrance for about 20 seconds, and saw enough to go back inside. To my right, a female steward was laid out after a brick had been thrown up from a Millwall fan (there are two separate paths that fans use to exit the ground, with the away fans using one about ten feet lower down than the home fans.) Millwall fans were also climbing up the wall, but police were hitting their hands with truncheons as they held on. As the paths met at the top, fans fought with police, whilst a riot van drove through the middle to try and separate the two rivals. No police dogs however, but police horses attempted to restore order (whether one was punched, as rumoured, is not known.)
The Millwall fans then went up through the town centre, onto trains to Sheffield, where some ended up fighting with Middlesbrough fans who were on their way home from Hillsborough. After conducting the post-match interviews, walking out of the stadium opened my eyes to the scale of the destruction. Rocks, coins and rubble lay all around the main stand, whilst (bent) metal barriers were laid all around the path leading out. Sirens were blaring, I counted eight riot vans flying across the dual carriageway towards Sheffield, clearly with the intention of beating the Millwall fans to Sheffield station.
The sense of disbelief was palpable from all around. Even as Millers boss Steve Evans conducted his post-match interview, those in the chairs around him had their backs turned to him and were discussing what had happened. Fingers have been pointed at the police; fans rightly questioning the police’s knowledge in the sense that anyone with half an interest in football knows that when Millwall fans buy 1,300 tickets, they’re not just coming to watch a game of football, especially when they have possibly the smallest away following in the league (for example, just 130 went to Middlesbrough the following Tuesday.) As for the ridiculous law that means away fans cannot be held inside the ground after a game due to infringements of human rights, questions must also be asked on whether it’s correct to expose children to the violence that was witnessed at the New York Stadium? Holding Millwall’s fans back for even 15 minutes allowed everyone to get home or to their cars and away. Instead, clashes were inevitable and visible to these youngsters. Will they ever want to return to the stadium after Saturday?
South Yorkshire Police were quick to state they have ‘substantial CCTV footage’ and will be making arrests in the near future, though that will also include some Rotherham fans. Yes, Millwall fans caused the vast majority of the disorder, but a section of Millers fans aren’t exempt from blame. A section in the Family Stand stood much of the game looking at the away end, goading and finger pointing, but escaped deep into the masses when Millwall fans advanced. Both clubs announced lifetime bans will be enforced to anyone found guilty of violent behaviour, perhaps the first The Millers have issued since their move back to the town after four seasons at Don Valley in Sheffield.
CHARLES DUCKSBURY has featured in/for FourFourTwo, Bleacher Report, CNN, When Saturday Comes, Daily Mirror, Squawka and ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter @cducksbury