England fans will always be a target in Europe but they can be their own worst enemy


England are playing on the second weekend of June, just as they were a year ago. There’s concern about the behaviour of the 4,000 travelling England fans who’ll be at Hampden Park, just as there was a year ago. It’s understandable, for out-dated songs about the IRA and the Second World War still proliferate; while it’s also normal for England fans to boo the national anthem of the teams they play.

I was in Marseille a year ago this weekend. It was not pretty. The England fans made the bars by the alluring Old Port their own for a couple of days. By 6pm on Friday night, the atmosphere was jingoistic, with England fans working through their full repertoire to a backdrop of sirens. 

“There were five German bombers in the air,” they sang, young men from provincial English towns, with the accompanying arm movements of an aeroplane. “And the RAF from England shot them down.” It went on and on, men in their early 20s wearing German Adidas training shoes named after the great European cities in countries they wanted a break from with Brexit.

They were not the organised hooligan firms of yore intent on violence, but a massive collective drawn from fans of hundreds of English football teams.

One fan had an inflatable spitfire plane. Locals watched on bemused until the police moved them back. A bottle was thrown; tear gas was used by the police. The tension ebbed and flowed, but it was only in one small area, where the pasty-faced Anglo-Saxon fans became zoo exhibits.

There were isolated attacks from locals and a police and security presence so vast that an order of sorts was kept and the majority of England fans saw none of the disorder. 

Saturday was different. I went for an early morning run to meet a couple of the England coaches near their team hotel, past street cleaners shovelling up the overnight mess generated by England fans. The coaches thought it would be funny to walk away from the direction I was running from, adding two kilometres to my early morning exertions. We sat in a bar by the beach and they asked about the trouble the night before. The fans want to know what is going on among the players; the players want to know what is going on among the fans.

Then I took a bus back into the Old Port and spoke to an American family who were full of enthusiasm for watching England v Russia, though the father of the family said he’d seen some very drunk England fans the night before. The term he used was most diplomatic: ‘over served’.

It was only 10am when I returned to the old town, but England fans were already drinking outside the bars, their flags showing names like Huddersfield and Wolverhampton, Swindon and Peterborough. Most were well into the beer when 200 steroid-fed Russian hooligans attacked them in a square off the Old Port at 4pm. 

The British fight back when provoked. And they were. Bottles and chairs were thrown, the sound of sirens and smashing glass filled the air, charges went back and forth, but the Russians cut through them.

I left my Air BnB flat in the Old Port at the same time and heard the Russians before I saw them as they moved through the streets with menace. The smell of tear gas came next, stinging the eyes and drying the mouth. It was pushed up into Marseille’s exclusive shopping streets by a stiff sea breeze. England fans followed, panicked and they ran from the Russians. Shoppers panicked too. We had no idea from where the danger of the Russians would come from. It was awful. 

A lot of innocent England fans were caught up in the fighting. And a lot of steaming drunk England fans too. They didn’t deserve to be assaulted just because they were heavily intoxicated, but too many England fans don’t help themselves, with their boorish chants which frighten and intimidate locals who’ve done nothing but be friendly to them.

I went into the stadium and found myself sitting among some of the 10,000 Russians. Male and female, young and old, the fans were friendly to this Englishman. Then the English began to arrive in the adjacent section. They came late, stumbling, obnoxious. They booed the Russian national anthem loudly. The Russians booed Wayne Rooney when his name was announced, but they did not boo God Save The Queen.

England fans travel in incredible numbers. No team in the world has their level of support and they occupied three quarters of the stunning stadium in Marseille. Most are good supporters who get behind their team. They sing and clap to ‘England’ with a delightful crispness. The players appreciate it greatly, those massive banks of white. 

‘Football’s Coming Home’ sounds great and you have to admire the loyalty of the fans who travel thousands of miles to watch soporific garbage.

I watch 85-90 live football games each season and I can’t think of two that have been worse in the last few years than ‘England 0 Costa Rica 0’ in Belo Horizonte and ‘England 0 Slovakia 0’ in St Etienne. Even the football played by Louis van Gaal wasn’t that bad.

The England fans in Brazil were well behaved but when England play in Europe, where it’s easier to travel to, so many fans behave like knobheads. 

If they acted as they did when they travelled with their club team to Europe then fellow fans would have a word, but it’s different with England. The lines are blurred, there’s no natural order where older heads carry the same authority. I heard several well-travelled fans in Marseille complaining that they’d never seen any of the young lads who’d been acting up before. 

Police in Scotland are mounting a huge security operation around the World Cup qualifier – and not only because of England fans, who are often their own worst enemy.