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WHAT actually happened at Ashburton Grove on Thursday night as Arsenal took on FC Cologne?
Was it a throwback to the days of hooligans on the terraces? Or was it a case of football fans showing their true passion, integrating with others in scenes rarely seen in England? Or was it both?
As north London, and the rest of Europe, gets to grips with the fallout of the clashes prior to kick-off, it is clear that there are two sides to this story. Both are valid.
I covered the match for the Star and as I made my way down to the stadium from Highbury and Islington station, I never got the sense that danger was impending.
I had spent the hours prior watching videos of the travelling supporters marching through central London in full voice, happy and jolly and ready for that evening’s game.
There was plenty of praise the Cologne fans, people saying how it was refreshing to see passionate, peaceful fans in and around London and many supporters of British clubs wanted their travelling contingent to take note of how to behave when abroad.
So when I made my way to the stadium, I was quite surprised by the lack of people on the streets. It was quiet. There was just over an hour till kick-off, yet I didn’t get the sense that there were 20,000 away fans in the area.
When I arrived at the stadium, while there were lots of Cologne fans drinking crates of beer, everything seemed calm and serene.
Then I got inside and things changed dramatically. Footage emerged of Cologne fans fighting outside with police as they tried to enter the stadium.
Despite being allocated 2,900 tickets, a 25-year absence from European football caused fans to travel in droves to London to witness their return to this level of football.
That isn’t an excuse for the minority of fans — and it was a minority — who ruined what was a party atmosphere inside the stadium.
Their excitement and goodwill turned to violence, as they turned nasty and clashed with authorities trying to keep them at bay.
But this wasn’t like the clashes we saw in France between English and Russian fans, which left many people bloody and beaten. This was trouble mostly between Cologne fans and police.
There was an announcement that the game was to be delayed for an hour, kick-off moving to 9.05pm. Fan safety was paramount and the stadium was in lockdown.
At this point, it was unclear whether the game would even go ahead.
Many felt it should have been called off, as the safety of fans could not be guaranteed. I was told by a source at Arsenal that away fans used barricades to smash windows and break turnstiles.
But despite this, the game went ahead and you could see why. How many more Cologne fans would have made the journey into London for the rearranged fixture? Could the police assure everyone that this wouldn’t happen again?
These are things Gunners boss Arsene Wenger thought about as the game was delayed.
“We waited patiently in our dressing room but what was difficult was for me was I had all kind of plans to think about at some stage,” he said.
“I had to think if we play tomorrow at what time do we want to play, do we play next week, but they had the Bundesliga again midweek and we had a League Cup game midweek as well.
“Do we move it to Tuesday and play Thursday? It was all kind of speculations, you know, that we had to analyse and see how we can deal with the situation. But in the end at some stage I thought they would not play the game, because I can’t see the police taking any risk.
“We live in a society of 100 per cent security and I thought they would never take a gamble to play this game when I saw the images around the stadium. But I must say our supporters as well dealt well with the situation … and there was no aggravation.”
Once the decision to go ahead with the game was made, I made my way outside. From where I was sitting inside the stadium, all I could see were thousands of people celebrating in a manner in which many English fans hadn’t seen before.
They were passionate and if all they had known was despair and doom as Cologne fans, facing one of the biggest teams in English and European football was a cause of celebration.
The supporters handled it well. The police, on the other hand, didn’t.
They were severely outnumbered and questions have to be asked about why there weren’t more on-duty police on the scene — there were only 110 rota’d in.
We had seen the footage of the fans around London and it is clear that police were caught off guard as to how early they turned up at Ashburton Grove. That is not good enough.
They were reactive instead of proactive. They eventually called in riot police and a helicopter was seen above the stadium, but that could have been avoided.
They should have been at stations around the stadium, stopping away fans to make sure they have tickets to the game and if they didn’t, escort them away from the area.
It sounds harsh but you can’t have over 15,000 fans milling around without tickets. When English teams play European games, fans are specifically told do not travel if they don’t have a ticket for the match.
Wenger said afterwards that the Cologne fans were “clever” in how they “infiltrated” the stadium. But they weren’t. They paid ticket touts and Arsenal fans two, three maybe even four times the amount of what the ticket was actually worth.
“They were very clever,” Wenger told the media.
“I don’t know how they managed to infiltrate our fans and get everywhere but they did that very well. I don’t know if they went through Arsenal membership, on the internet ... they did very well.”
Exit the train station near a football ground on matchday and you will see touts brazenly offer to buy and sell tickets while police stand by and watch. That’s how some infiltrated the stadium.
Perhaps they did go through Arsenal membership, because the Cologne support managed to all but take over the Clock End and it’s hard to believe that every fan behind the goal openly sold their ticket — although some would have.
There was plenty of talk over the summer from fans who didn’t want to watch their team in the Europa League and if you can flog your ticket for 10 times what you paid for it, why wouldn’t you?
An investigation has been opened by the club as to how so many home tickets were given to away fans.
Trouble kicked off inside the stadiums as away fans in the home section attempted to file into the away part of the ground.
Riot police surrounded them with dogs and eventually it calmed down. But as kick-off approached, you could see the true extent of the number of Cologne fans inside Ashburton Grove.
Now in Germany, home and away fans can sit side by side in perfect harmony. I’ve done it myself, visiting Dortmund a few years ago, and saw home and away fans drinking beer together.
However, that isn’t the case in Britain and it was interesting to see how they adapted to the situation of not being able to sit with the home fans.
Many bought Arsenal scarves, didn’t wear Cologne branded items and while the fans behind one goal joined in with chants before the game, many stayed quiet. Until Cologne scored.
Groups all over Ashburton Grove jumped up and celebrated and you could see the panic in the stewards’ eyes.
Arsenal fans grew irate. The ones in front of me demanded that stewards “remove the fucking fans” and that they “do their fucking jobs and get them out immediately.”
Stewards looked at each other, disappeared and then came back to escort two men from the stadium. I found that interesting as both men looked like they had done nothing wrong.
I expected the large group to be told to leave but it seems they weren’t worth the hassle of trying to remove. Instead they stayed, subdued for the rest of the game.
What people saw first-hand is how the game will be remembered. Many saw chilled out fans enjoying the occasion. There are videos of home and away fans having chant-offs, making the most of the vibrant atmosphere.
However, som only saw the carnage prior to kick-off and it would have terrified them. Rightfully so.
Others would have seen thousands of fans being loud, and that too might have scared them. If you have never witnessed something like that, it is only natural to be wary.
It was an extremely tense occasion for all involved. At one point, there was a bang inside the press box and the journalist next to me looked genuinely terrified.
In the end it was the desk behind us being closed, but given the circumstances of the night, and the fact that some fans had managed to smuggle in flares, his mind briefly thought of the worst-case scenario.
There was a real sense of solidarity between journalists and Arsenal staff, everyone making sure that they were getting home safely, people discussing sharing cabs or walking to the station together just make sure they were safe. It was wonderful yet daunting.
And that sums up the night for me. It was the most terrified yet amazed I have ever been at a football game. The passion outweighs the violence, though it cannot be ignored and lessons must be learnt.
A throwback to hooliganism or a night of song and dance? It was neither one nor the other, to be perfectly honest.
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