A fearless West Ham fan who protected the families of players from Dutch hooligans has insisted he is “no hero” despite holding off the horde of violent thugs while recovering from hip surgery.
Chris Knoll was hailed a “legend” by fans after leading the defence against marauding AZ Alkmaar ultras following Thursday night’s Europa Conference League semi-final victory.
However, the terrace regular, know by fellow supporters as “Knollsy” and now the “Angel of Alkmaar”, was modest about his efforts on Friday as he recalled the dramatic scenes.
‘I’m not a hero,” said Knoll, a 58-year-old father-of-four from Hampton, Middlesex. “I just did what I had to do,” he told the Mail Online website. “There was another guy who was fending them off. I don’t like bullies and just had to try and stop them.”
West Ham fans, including the friends and families of players, came under attack following the final whistle of their 1-0 victory at the AFAS Stadion in Alkmaar.
A group of black-shirted AZ ultras had torn down a gate within the stadium before charging towards the small section of West Ham supporters seated behind the dugouts at the 20,000-seater arena.
But the Dutch assailants were met with fierce resistance from the West Ham supporters, with pictures and footage from the night showing how individual fans had protected the families behind them by fighting off the attackers.
One of those fans was Knoll, seen in pictures with a torn t-shirt, exchanging blows with a number of balaclava-wearing Dutch ultras.
“I just thought the best form of defence was to attack,” he added. “You could see they were intent of causing trouble and I did not want them to get to those behind us.”
Freddie Bonfanti, who was in the crowd, was among hundreds of fans to heap praise on Knoll for defending supporters.
He posted on social media: “Knollsy the legend. Stopped the home fans from getting to the players’ families.” West Ham and France goalkeeper Areola also called Knoll a “legend”.
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But recalling events while nursing a bruised eye and scratches on his face, Knoll said: ‘We were in our seats and we just scored and I saw all the flares go off. It was getting a little bit rowdy. I saw them all congregated on the side of the pitch and then they broke down the barriers and headed to the first group of West Ham fans. I know what they were intent on doing and was not going to let it happen. It was fairly obvious what was going to happen because they were intent on coming to us. They were the ultras, you could see that from what they were wearing. I just decided I wasn’t going to let them come up.”
Bonfanti, who was in the crowd, explained on social media how “Knollsy the legend” had “recently had a hip replacement and simply could not run”.
“He is also a proud man and he was genuinely concerned about the players’ partners and ex-West Ham players sitting all around us,” Bonfanti added.
“He did what he had to do. I am proud to call him a mate and glad he stopped what could have been a much worse incident.
“We were sitting behind [West Ham defender] Thilo Kehrer’s girlfriend. Knollsy was worried about her and walked to the top of the stairwell, fending off the storming Alkmaar fans. He is a lovely bloke and did what he felt was right at the time. He stopped those fans.”
Bonfanti added that Knollsy was sent a message of support by West Ham’s Declan Rice in 2021, when he was in “bad shape”.
“He always says it’s what made him recover,” Bonfanti wrote. “The man is West Ham through and through and would have done anything to protect our fans tonight.”
A video recorded on a mobile phone from within the stadium showed how another West Ham fan held off at least a dozen AZ supporters from the top of a stairway in the stands.
West Ham’s players also tried to join the fray, with Flynn Downes, Michail Antonio and Said Benrahma among those who attempted to make their way into the stands.
Uefa will wait for the full reports from the night before deciding on what disciplinary action to take against AZ and their supporters. It is understood that they could also appoint an inspector to investigate the situation more deeply.
Eyewitness: A flurry of bodies as players protect their families
By Sam Dean
The instant reaction of many of the West Ham United players and coaches, once the final whistle had sounded on a famous European victory, was to run across the pitch and celebrate with their supporters in the far corner of AZ Alkmaar’s AFAS Stadion.
Barely a few seconds had passed, though, before they realised that something was going horribly wrong behind them, in the other direction. The whistles, shouts and screams from the stands alerted them to the unfolding situation behind the dugouts, where club officials, sponsors and – crucially, from the perspective of the West Ham players – the friends and families of the team were seated.
Within the ground, it did not take long to realise what was taking place. A horde of black-shirted AZ fans, some of them in balaclavas and most of them with their hoods pulled up, had charged towards a small section of home supporters near the halfway line. They had done so after tearing down a metal gate and surging through a crowd of stewards.
With the blood still pumping through their veins after 90 minutes of hard-fought action in a Europa Conference League semi-final, many of the West Ham players reacted instinctively. Battling their way through the bodies, they tried to launch themselves into the fray and defend their loved ones.
Flynn Downes, West Ham’s young midfielder, briefly succeeded in doing so. After leaping over a pitchside barrier, the 24-year-old could be seen swinging his fists towards a group of black-shirted assailants, before he was dragged away.
Said Benrahma and Michail Antonio also charged in, while others – including Lucas Paqueta and Aaron Cresswell – were forcibly held back by stewards and officials.
David Moyes, the West Ham manager, had friends and family in that section of the stadium. The club’s security officials tried to pull him away, towards the dressing room, but he strongly resisted. “I had to make sure my players weren’t involved,” he said afterwards.
West Ham fans protected families in the area
Amid the chaos, there was concern among the West Ham supporters for the home fans who had been caught between the two groups. One travelling fan told Telegraph Sport that young Dutch families had been forced to flee across the seats, their children terrified.
At the time, amid the flurry of bodies, it was hard to see what would stop the AZ ultras from advancing further. It later emerged that the West Ham supporters had proved as resilient in the stands as their players had been on the pitch, when they had secured the clean sheet that guaranteed progress to next month’s Europa Conference League final.
Extraordinary footage, filmed on mobile phones from within the ground, shows how West Ham fans had stood atop stairways, holding off the AZ supporters with a series of punches and kicks as they protected the families in that area.
Perhaps daunted by the size of the challenge facing them, the assailants soon turned their backs. The stewards and officials waded in, and the trouble was cleared. West Ham’s players then returned to the original plan by sprinting across the pitch to the away supporters in the far corner, where they celebrated joyously. Those celebrations continued, in some style, in the dressing room a few minutes later.
Uefa will now review the reports of the night before deciding on what action to take. It is understood that they could appoint an inspector to investigate the situation more deeply and examine whether this was anything more than crowd misbehaviour.
But Uefa’s officials would do well to look towards themselves, too, as there had also been issues in the stands in the first leg at the London Stadium last week. The two incidents were clearly related.
Families of AZ players had to be moved during game in London
The problem, in the eyes of some observers of these two matches, is that Uefa allocates to travelling supporters a section of the home stands behind the dugouts. This is where corporate guests are seated, along with sponsors and families of the players. This is not what usually happens in domestic games, when away fans are kept in away sections.
Last week, in London, the friends and families of the AZ players and coaches had to be moved at half-time after verbal altercations with nearby West Ham fans following the Dutch side’s opening goal. Here, it was the same problem but on a much larger, and much more violent scale.
The fallout will continue over the next few days, and it remains to be seen what disciplinary action will follow for AZ and their supporters. Thankfully for West Ham, it is no longer their problem.
The players flew home on Thursday night, and most of the fans will be following them on Friday. Some of those supporters will be shaken, but many will also be proud of how they stood up for each other on a night that will go down as one of the finest, and most dramatic, in West Ham’s European history.