Newcastle United: Why a man punching a horse doesn't signal a return to football's darkest days

He punched a horse. In the broadest daylight and in front of the TV cameras, a grey-haired, barrel-chested Newcastle supporter punched a police horse full in the face.

It is an act that transcends traditional notions of right and wrong, in that it’s so abundantly wrong that it’s light years beyond wrong. When the case reaches court, the judge will open proceedings by saying, “Dude…you punched a horse!” and then no-one will know quite how to proceed.

It’s been quite a weekend for football. First we had the extraordinary sight of a pack of Millwall fans apparently turning on each other inside Wembley, then we had #WorHorse (courtesy of @GarethDParker) and the images of supporters ‘battling’ riot police on the streets of Newcastle. It’s been enough for some outlets to suggest that the ‘English Disease’ has returned and that we stand at the threshold of a new era of pain. I’m not so sure about that. 

For each of these incidents, there was a reason to be hopeful. Take the Millwall fans, for example. I was at Wembley watching in astonishment as, and I believe this is the correct terminology, “it all kicked off.” But while approximately 30 supporters traded what can only be described as ‘proper punches’, the other Lions’ fans booed them.

In the bad old days, the crowd might have roared them on, especially when the police arrived. Here, there was nothing but contempt and dismay. At the end, the majority stayed to applaud their team for their efforts, as if there was a collective effort to redress the balance, to show that Millwall supporters could be decent.

We’ll all remember the face of that grinning buffoon as he clutched a police helmet like it was Beyonce’s mobile number. What we should remember is how few people were grinning with him. 

The pitched battles between police and Newcastle supporters were notably mainly for how pathetic they were. After a week of heavily rotated news footage from the 1980s, we all know what a proper pitched battle with police looks like; there is thunderous noise and a frenzy of movement.

There are attacks and retreats as men driven by desperation, rage or hatred seek to make their mark. Pitched battles, by and large, do not involve a horde of rubbery-faced teenagers in shiny designer coats lobbing empty bottles of alcopops at visibly unruffled police lines. 

Watch the footage again and you’ll note a distinct absence of leadership or coordination. There are no ‘top boys’ here, there’s no structure to the violence. This isn’t a return to the time of travelling  ‘firms’, this is a motley collection of kids whose teachers were too scared, and justifiably so in some cases, to punish them. According to Newcastle United fanzine, ‘The Mag’, most of them weren’t even at the game. This isn’t football’s problem, this is England’s problem. 

And then there is the man punching a horse, an act of such absurd stupidity that it was originally a visual gag in a Mel Brooks movie. Who punches a horse?! How do you explain that to your wife? 

“Eee, there you are, pet. I saw the result, I hope you didn’t get too angry?”

“I might have lost me temper, love. I can distinctly recall punching a police horse full in the face.”

“Ah, pet. Divnae fret. We’ve all been there. I punched two police horses when they clamped me car in the Metro Centre last Christmas.”

Punching a horse in the face is not representative of either football supporters or the good people of the North-East. It’s so ridiculous, it’s not representative of anything at all. 

When you’re trying to link something that absurd to a greater argument, your greater argument clearly needs some work. This weekend wasn’t pretty, but for the moment, football remains in good shape. 

Read more from the majestic Iain Macintosh