AS football hooligans launched running battles against police and turned Manchester city centre into a no-go zone on Wednesday night, the Rangers fans at the centre of the mayhem had two staunch allies at their side: Chelsea's infamous gang of soccer casuals, the Headhunters, and a contingent of ultra-violent hardmen from Northern Ireland, linked to Ulster paramilitary organisations, the so-called Belfast Battalion.
The shockwaves from the night of violence were felt keenly in Scotland. Steve Purcell, leader of Glasgow City Council, offered an apology in Manchester's main evening newspaper for the behaviour of about 200 hardcore thugs. Scots also had to endure the bile and wrath of English talk-radio hosts castigating the nation for the scenes in Manchester.
However, the ripple effect from last Wednesday night isn't just being felt north of the border. The events are also being studiously analysed on Europe's furthest reaches, both by Russia's fearsome interior ministry police and Russia's infamous hooligan gangs, ahead of next week's Champions League final in Moscow between Manchester United and Chelsea.
Russia's government fears that the stabbing of a Zenit fan in the wake of the St Petersburg team beating Rangers 2-0 in the Uefa Cup final in Manchester on Wednesday will trigger revenge attacks on British fans when they arrive in Moscow this coming Wednesday for the battle between Manchester United and Chelsea. An unprecedented level of security will be put in place and border watches will be established to prevent British hooligans entering the country.
Tales of Russia's football hooligans' brutality can make British thuggery seem tame by comparison. In previous interviews with Sunday Herald staff, Russian football hooligans in St Petersburg told how they had once envied the violence they saw on their TV screens of primarily English casuals in action on the terraces. Now, however, the Russian hooligans claim they are "light years" ahead of their British rivals in terms of organisation, bloodlust, weaponry and "bravery". They boast that they now terrorise European terraces where English casuals were once feared. Russian hooligans are renowned for orchestrating pitched battles involving hundreds of fans on both sides.
Police sources in Scotland, Manchester and Northern Ireland have confirmed that although Rangers fans were responsible for the worst of the violence they did not act alone. One officer said: "This is not an excuse. Police on the ground say Scottish fans acted like aggressive animals, but we believe that Chelsea supporters and supporters from Northern Ireland also took part in the violence." It is also suspected that fans from Millwall, another football team which boasts an infamous squad of casuals, were also involved.
Two Rangers casuals from Glasgow told the Sunday Herald that there is a long-running association between Chelsea and Rangers. The casuals call each other the Blues Brothers, a reference to their teams' colours and the bond between the two groups of supporters. Both sides' hooligans have links with extreme far-right organisations in the UK. With many hardline loyalists in Ulster avid fans of Rangers, and also connected to neo-Nazi groups in Britain, the links between the three gangs of supporters are well established.
One of the Rangers casuals said: "We back them Chelsea and they back us. I don't think I need to explain the affection and loyalty that Rangers fans have for Ulster and that folk from Ulster have for our team. We are all fellow-travellers together."
When asked if Ulster fans and Chelsea headhunters were involved in the violence, the pair would only say that "fans from Ulster and London were up in Manchester to support us. If the police are heavy-handed with us, or if rival teams become aggressive, then we know we can rely on their support".
The website for the Chelsea Headhunters boasts Nazi images relating to "white power" music and the extremist group Combat 18, as well as overt references to Ulster loyalism including images of a Protestant gunman, masked and dressed in camouflage.
Jim Templeton, president of the Rangers Supporters Assembly, said he was disgusted by the acts of violence that marred Wednesday night.
"Although I saw a limited amount of trouble, I did see that a lot of those involved were wearing no colours," he said. "I did receive a number of reports from law-abiding fans saying that they'd seen Chelsea Headhunters in Manchester. One told me he heard them boasting of wrecking a taxi.
"I don't want people to think this is an excuse, some sort of it wasn't us, it was them', but there is no doubt that there were reports of many Chelsea fans up that night. Their fans have been described to me as stirring up trouble, particularly around the Piccadilly area of Manchester.
"That there were Northern Ireland folk over is no surprise, it would be more of a surprise for me if they were not there. It is not a matter of how many or how few Rangers fans were involved, as the actions must be condemned, but I feel really really sorry for the thousands of fans just there for fun."
Sources in Greater Manchester Police said they were liaising with other police forces across the UK in order to establish which groups of casuals, as well as Rangers hooligans, took part in the rioting.
"Just because Chelsea hooligans and Northern Ireland hooligans may have been involved, that does not let the Glasgow fans off the hook. Most of those arrested were Scottish, after all," one source said.
So far there have been 42 arrests, six of which are related to the stabbing of a Russian fan. There were some 52 cases of assault, including the injury of 15 police officers. Since September 2006, the Scottish police have applied for 367 banning orders against hooligans across the country.
Sources in police football intelligence said: "We are not just looking for fans from one group here. This was a big match in the middle of Britain that afforded hooligans the chance to converge on Manchester. We will most likely be ID'ing known troublemakers."
THE online forums for Rangers football fans have been buzzing with accusations that English casuals were present at Wednesday's match. Liverpool, Portsmouth, Chelsea, Millwall, Manchester United and Manchester City "firms" were all mentioned as having rioters on the ground during the disturbances. There were also several fans who said they saw Millwall and Chelsea flags in Piccadilly Square.
Others felt Rangers fans were looking for an excuse for violence on the night of the riot. "We have a terrible problem in our support that cannot be ignored," wrote one poster to the website.
The same website carried a straw poll asking supporters if they would want a Rangers FC identity card, which would tighten up procedures around who could be sold tickets. More than two-thirds agreed it would be a good idea. Others, however, pointed out that an ID card wouldn't discourage the "hangers-on" who want to cause trouble in and around games.
Rangers fans in Northern Ireland told the Sunday Herald that loyalist supporters from Belfast were involved in the Manchester riots. They said that the majority of the worst offenders were sympathisers with loyalist paramilitary groups. One supporter, who travelled from County Armagh to Manchester with his children, said he was disgusted to see his fellow-countrymen involved in such mindless violence. The worst offenders from Ulster are alternatively called the Belfast Brigade or the Belfast Battalion.
With the risk of revenge violence in Moscow this week, British police have placed banning orders on 152 suspected English hooligans ahead of the Moscow match. Eighty-three individuals linked to Manchester United and 69 linked to Chelsea were ordered to hand in their passports to police by Friday evening to stop them travelling to the match.
A spokeswoman for the Home Office's UK football policing unit said that the Russian authorities had the passport numbers of English hooligans who have not yet handed in their documents and all ports and airports would be watching for them.
"If they get there and are sent back to the UK, they can be sentenced to up to six months," she said.
Organisers in Moscow are taking a very different approach than those in Manchester, which was criticised for running the event badly and allowing fans to drink all day in the city centre. No-one in the Russian capital will be permitted to drink alcohol in the street. Fans without tickets will not have big screens laid on for them and instead will have to watch the game in sports bars.
There will be more than 6000 Russian policemen and interior troops from the military on foot, in vehicles and on horseback in and around the Luzhniki stadium. Russia's sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, said the administration would do everything it could to prevent violence and ensure that there are no acts of revenge following the stabbing of the Russian fan in Manchester. Mutko also confirmed that 15 British law enforcement officials would be on hand to help organise security and act as spotters for known British casuals.
Interior ministry spokesman Valery Gribakin said he had asked Interpol for information about violent English fans who might travel to Moscow for the match, and added that his officials would be watching for them closely. "Naturally, special control will be established over these individuals, but not in a way that seriously infringes their rights," he said.
Russian police say they are more than ready. "I've seen how the British fans behave in the grounds," said police officer Pyotr Soprikin. "They are like kids compared to the Russian fans."
Some 300 English-speaking policemen have been drafted into Moscow to work at the stadium, in hotels and on the emergency switchboard. Some police at the stadium will operate undercover, and plain-clothes officers will act as stewards.
The strong-arm security arrangements will see fans from London and Manchester arriving from two different airports and being taken on buses to the stadium under police escort. Convoys of Manchester and Chelsea fans will be driven along dedicated motorway lanes on separate routes. Ordinary Russian drivers have been asked to avoid those streets, and the stadium area will be closed to traffic from May 20 to 22.