By Liam Twomey at Wembley
If any day should have been just about the football, this was it. The matching of Millwall and Wigan in Saturday's FA Cup semi-final continued the good work of this season's thrillingly unpredictable Capital One Cup in bringing to Wembley two teams not successful or illustrious enough to have long ago seen their wide-eyed excitement at the occasion dulled by numbing expectation.
The Latics, gunning for their first-ever FA Cup final appearance, had called upon almost every fan that they could muster, yet still fell 10,000 short of their allocation. Their Championship opponents had summoned more and the uncompromisingly corporate-looking "home of English football" played host to a wonderful atmosphere despite only being two-thirds-full and assailed by rain.
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A section of the Millwall end went feral, lashing out at itself and the police officers dispatched to quell the disorder. There were three major flare-ups, the last of which, immediately following Callum McManaman's decisive goal, provided the most striking and shaming scenes.
Wigan were making history, and in style, but suddenly it seemed trivial. All eyes – and television cameras – were drawn to the pocket of furious chaos in the stand as a band of morons proceeded to hijack the headlines in the only way they know how.
It was as vicious as it was surreal. The exchanges between what we can only assume were exclusively Millwall supporters could not be characterised as hapless scuffles, for they carried the force and frantic intent of battles instigated by those well-schooled in the ways of violence.
All the while the orange-jacketed match stewards stood in an idle line behind the goal, watching with a mixture of bemusement and concern. They are not to blame; being no security guards, it is not their place to risk their own safety in public order situations.
As the minutes ticked down, Wigan fans determinedly celebrated their imminent triumph, while most in Millwall colours just wanted it to end. Thousands passed the time by chanting "W**KERS" at those orchestrating the violence, while others shielded the shell-shocked and teary children whom they had assumed it safe to bring along.
When the dust settled, no winners emerged. Not Wigan, who have seen a historic and fully deserved achievement shrouded in ignominy and disgrace. Not Millwall, who will see their tainted name take another battering as a result of an odious minority. And not even the morons themselves who, once the perverse thrill of the fight has passed, have criminal charges and banning orders to which to look forward.
The very fact that such scenes carried the shock value they did is testament to the huge progress made in the fight against hooliganism in football over the past 25 years. This was not the 1985 riot of Kenilworth Road, nor the pitched battles which occurred prior to Monday's Rome derby. It is merely an extremely unpleasant reminder of a time and culture that we wish we could write out of history.
At the same time, one only had to turn to the opposite stand to bear witness to the good side of football fans raised on these shores; the delightfully self-deprecating wit of Wigan fans chanting "1-0 to the empty seats" after they had taken the lead, or, moments earlier, the wonderful righteous solidarity evident in a defiant 24th-minute chorus of "Justice for the 96".
But, as demonstrated with the equally hateful issue of racism, recent events suggest that English football has merely subdued its taboos, not eradicated them entirely. They still bubble angrily near the surface and, at Wembley on Saturday, erupted in full view to the shame of all.