A wall of aggression. A barrier of taxpayers’ money. One single channel holding 2,000 fans in complete anarchy. Glassware continued to rain down indiscriminately. A middle-aged woman behind me shook with fear. Two men burst through the crowd, one supporting the other, blood rolling down his face. It wasn’t a fight because it wasn’t fair. Our travelling support suffered greatly; it was more than humiliation. We were pinned down in the narrow road by Flanders’ law enforcement, with the opposition hooligans housed to our left behind concrete fencing, the only free direction being the one we had come from.
Why was this happening now? The arrival of Hull City’s faithful in the small market town had been both staggered and unspectacular. The Black & Amber had travelled via an array of routes, some coming through Germany, most via Bruges, many after Amsterdam, a bunch across the channel and others flying to cities further South before driving northward. There was no mass arrival upon Lokeren that would have alarmed locals big and small.
And even after arrival there was no misbehaviour from the Hull fans. None that I heard of anyway. The Lokeren council had done an excellent job of erecting a temporary marquee with open-air bars and food stalls in the main square. As the hours passed it seemed like everyone, who is anyone, had made the journey. For the fans old and young alike, a moment to savour, an achievement most would never have dreamed possible. But to say “we owned the town” would be inaccurate, because we were constantly among fans of our Europa League knockout opponents, Sporting Lokeren.
No anger, no intimidation, no confrontation, no victimising. Lokeren fans simply wanted to welcome us to their manor and enjoy the opportunity to talk to real-life Premier League Football junkies. Hours were spent between the two sets of fans, shirt and scarf swapping, singing each others’ songs and making up new ones, all very engaged, the beer flowing generously. Lokeren and Breda hooligans and ultras lurked in uneasy anticipation at the North side of the square, just in case the mood were to turn sour. But they remained unchallenged and, well, pretty much forgotten about. 6 o’clock came and all marched en masse to the ground. Unity.
How had it come to this? Why were the feds now treating us this way? After a boring match and a shitty goal to concede, we found ourselves locked in the away end. “Only while the home fans are clearing”. 5 minutes and we were released. I dashed out, conscious of the timing of my travel arrangements, turned the corner and,
oh you’re fucking kidding.
A whole row of riot police were waiting, blocking the single road. Head to foot protective gear, complete with water tank. Prior to this point, there had been nothing more than a lengthy body search before entering the ground. Why this now? The Hull fans gathered in front, held in place. Minutes passed. We could barely see through the blockade to know what we were waiting for. Fans continued to gather, the street filled. Men grew impatient. The chants came, each time more resentful. One major attempt by fans was made to break through the line, only for the batons to come down swiftly. 15 minutes passed before the instruction was made to begin marching. The police had conspired to control every one of our movements.
¡Qué será, será! Whatever will be, will be. You’re going to Hull City! Qué será, será.
Up the narrow road. Toward the pub. Then in front of the pub, where all the banned fans were waiting for us. Our police-led corteo slowly found itself within reach of the hooligans. The noise went up, the heads went up, the bottles came down. It was an ambush. We were trapped. Some fans tried to break into the Heerenveen pub to retaliate, their level of success to this day still unknown to me. But with the hooligans locked in the beer garden behind the pub, the front door securely closed and we empty handed without projectiles, it was only to end one way. And the police did nothing. Just kettled us in front of the local hooligans. They paid no attention to the violence coming from the Belgian fans. Instead, we were the ones whose behaviour needed controlling. The slow march continued passed the Heerenveen, as the Hull City fans were picked off, one by one.
Even on the train back, the police aggression was relentless. The stupid dickhead conductor saw a dozen English Football fans in her wagon and did a runner. Next thing we know, we stop at a sleepy little town for more riot police to board, this time with dogs. About 15 guys, all wearing colours, all sat calmly post match in a single cabin. It didn’t matter. We were treated with complete contempt, like criminals. I demanded justification for their behaviour, but was simply barked at to return to my seat time and time again. There was no way to fight it, but that’s not really what matters. It was the complete absence of any justification of the police brutality at any point.
Was it a precautious but grossly unnecessary move from the Flanders Law Enforcement? Or was it just coppers with a grudge against English Football fans playing bully? I won’t answer because I don’t know. But the following social media reaction from the Lokeren fans told the story. They had all seen what the Hull fans they were drinking with hours earlier had been subjected to and were immensely sorry, singing our praises as visitors. Since then, fan relations between Hull City and Sporting Lokeren have been very strong (those that weren’t trying to glass us), with fans of both teams making the trip to watch the other play. From that day. August 21st, 2014.
In the group stages, Sporting Lokeren drew Legia Warszawa. Would love to have seen how these feds dealt with that one.