South London Press Sports Editor Toby Porter says...
ANYONE who thinks the events at Wembley on Saturday can be brushed off needs to know that the fighting between Millwall fans was covered in the Pocono Recorder.
Readers of the paper for a mountain range, population 9,500, in Pennsylvania – 300 miles west of New York City - would not have heard of the club before. Many will tut and move on.
But some will remember it, even if they know nothing about the club, the fixture, or even the sport.
The images beamed across the planet at about 6.15pm cannot be brushed aside. They represent as crucial a moment for this club as the riots which followed play-off defeat at the hands of Birmingham in May 2002.
Yes, far fewer people were involved.
Yes, double the number were arrested at the Tyne-Wear derby the following day.
Yes, injuries at Wembley were minimal.
Yes, the full weight of the law will be brought to bear on the perpetrators.
And yes, there is little the FA, the police, the stewards and especially Millwall could have done to prevent it.
Well, apart from a different kick-off time. Millwall and late Saturday kick-offs don’t mix.
But many of those involved will have been drinking since 9am. By 5pm, if they could even remember their names, the consequences for the club of throwing punches and grappling with a barely-coherent foe in front of millions of viewers would have been lost on them.
And, yes, there might have been a small germ of an excuse for it kicking off - a perceived insult, a misplaced swear-word, a muttered sleight.
It might even have been excused, in the contorted logic of drunken, consenting adults insisting on having a fight in a pub car park.
And probably, the police will have thought watching the fighting unfold was good entertainment: Millwall fans spilling each other’s blood rather than theirs - what a giggle.
But - and it is the biggest “but” since someone pointed out the Emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes - none of that matters. What matters is the perception that this club’s fans are beyond control.
This is what people in the wider world will think: It does not matter what measures are taken, what incentives there are for good behaviour or what punishments are in place.
Millwall fans, they will think, want a scrap in any situation, no matter the consequences - even amongst themselves, if none of their perceived enemies are to hand.
And the wider public will not want to be associated with that in any way. They will think the club’s fans are insane, beyond redemption, and should be left to drown in the consequences of their own misdeeds. They will certainly not want to go to their games.
What the FA chooses to do now is anyone’s guess. But no one will have any sympathy - unless the game’s feeble ruling body finally actually takes draconian action. This is, after all, a small club in the Championship which has never been anything other than an irritant in the past.
But some consequences might be worse.
Any hope Millwall has of coaxing stayaway fans back to The Den in the last month of this season are virtually gone - at a time, in a relegation battle, when those supporters are needed more than ever.
But perhaps the worst effect will not even be in this country.
The chairman, John Berylson, has ploughed £21million into the club in the last six years. He could pull the plug tomorrow.
There will be people around him who will urge him to do exactly that - and who could blame them, after they got a small flavour of what can happen when some Millwall fans get together at the home of world football.
The situation is retrievable. If this is the point at which everyone involved in the Lions - fans, staff, players, families and the community - stand together and condemn what happened, this could be a turning point.
Saturday could become the last, pathetic, laughable hurrah of a hooligan element bent on self-destruction. From this point on, those who love the club could realise the old, “pwoper nawtee” image of the club has no place in football.
Or, there is another scenario. This could be the point where the chairman walks away, the cash dries up, and the forces of destruction and anarchy prevail.
Some Millwall fans might like their hard-man image. But time is slowly moving on, and the chairman does not want to see it perpetuated - certainly if it leads to the kind of scenes broadcast worldwide on Saturday.
He has kept the club afloat for the last five years. So his are the only views that matter. If he chose to pull the plug, the world would turn its face away and leave the chaos to engulf a once-proud club, and watches it wither and die.
Only the next few weeks will dictate how this watershed moment pans out. What will happen?
priced 50p and available in all good newsagents/supermarkets/petrol stations, South London PressToby Porter's comment piece is in today's