If you’ve ever been to a football match, you’ll know the somewhat overbearing presence the police can have. It’s not confined to around the stadium either, with police often making themselves visible around train stations, on transport, and on the walk to the ground. Most of us just walk past them, and just go about our day, yet they continue to disproportionately target football matches, as if the ‘English disease’ of football hooliganism that afflicted the game in the past, is still alive and well. It’s not.
With the shocking revelation just last month that some of the most heavily policed football matches in the UK had a ratio of 1 police officer for every 50 fans, critics are pushing for a review of policing at games. Many believe the large police presence may, in part, contribute to “tensions” between fans, and increase the risk of disorder – rather than prevent it. Tactics like police escorts and being overly rough-handed with fans could be considered a catalyst to violence.
It’s nothing new
Football fans have been vilified and stereotyped by the media and politicians since the days of Thatcher. Football hooliganism did nothing to endear football fans to the public and the media. But the problem is that the fans who caused trouble were in the extreme minority, yet were presented as being the average fan on the terraces. To some extent, it continues. Football fans, especially after the creation of the far-right Football Lads Alliance, are seen to be lager drinking louts, who cause mayhem and intimidate others. Very rarely do the media latch onto the positive stories of football fans – like West Ham fans coming together to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds for a young West Ham fan, Isla Caton, who is battling cancer.
Instead, the media choose to focus on middle-aged English men with their shirts off, whilst travelling abroad to watch England play, being xenophobic and drunk. What the media and police fail to realise is that as sanctions for those committing violence have become more severe (banning orders, tougher prison sentences) and detection of troublemakers have become better (CCTV, databases), violence around grounds has plummeted. Firms meet each other away from the ground, at a pre-arranged venue. Simply put, the massive police presence is mostly just symbolic – not effective.
How heavily is football policed?
According to data obtained by the BBC, in 2017-8, the number of officers sent to matches ranged from 0 – 587 (when Middlesbrough played Sunderland – an officer for every 50 fans). In the Premier League, the most heavily policed match was Tottenham vs West Ham, at Wembley, with 477 officers; 1 for every 105 fans.
It isn’t just the potential effect on fan enjoyment that is an issue. Police operations at games are very expensive – both for the home team and the taxpayer. When Sheffield Wednesday played Sheffield United at home, it cost £203,000. Wednesday paid £41,000. For clubs without a large bank balance, it’s easy to see how such costs can build up and become a problem, especially when there is no evidence to suggest such expenses were entirely necessary to begin with.
It seems that policing at games often lacks the common sense to distinguish between a fan being a threat, and a fan emotionally celebrating a goal or their team winning. We can mostly all agree that pitch invasions and aggression aren’t acceptable, but when it comes to fans being manhandled for celebrating in a group or being a bit excitable, that’s where tension rises and tempers flare. Completely ridiculous prosecutions are taking place, like the case of Grimsby Town fan Ken Meech who was found guilty of assaulting a steward with an inflatable shark, during a crowd surge. He denies all wrongdoing but was convicted and fined £800. Football laws are entirely draconian and it is difficult to imagine other sections of society being treated in this way.
A double standard
An issue that certainly grinds my gears as a football fan, is the double standard when it comes to portrayal of spectator violence. Violent disorder at a football game is far more likely to be sensationalised, than a fight at Ascot or a rugby game. We’ve all seen the videos circulate on social media of a group of lads in suits and boat shoes throwing punches at a race course – but it won’t be met with the same disgust as it would, say, if the offenders were clad in Stone Island and wearing gazelles.
I suspect it’s partially down to class. Football is a working-class sport and has been deeply engrained in working class culture for over 100 years. Other sports, such as Rugby or Horseracing tend to attract a more middle-class clientele. The idea that the working classes are uncouth and feral seems to explain, in part, the reason football fans are over-policed and vilified. There seems a deep-seated suspicion from authorities towards football fans. The fact is, there are offences that only apply to football fans, such as indecent chanting, pitch invasion and possessing alcohol when entering a ground.
Even worse in Scotland
North of the border, there is growing discontent about the way fans are treated. For once, Celtic and Rangers fans are united. Both sides of the Old Firm oppose to facial recognition technology at grounds, which would archive every fan in attendance, flagging up any banned individual for removal. It’s hard to imagine that the same technology would be allowed to be used against political protestors or other groups. Celtic fans held up banners that read: “End the criminalisation of football fans”.
The SNP brought in the Offensive Behaviour and Threatening Communications at Football Act in 2012, which aimed to prevent the sectarianism element of Scottish football. It was repealed in April of this year. The legislation was widely criticised by fans and academics alike, with suggestions it placed strains on supporter-police relations.
The legislation was rushed through in the aftermath of the 2011 Old Firm match between Rangers and Celtic and had been criticised for being knee-jerk and unhelpful. Singing sectarian songs violated the law, but the law was far too broad and open to interpretation. A fan wearing a “Free Palestine” t-shirt was held by the police.
Whilst the draconian laws may have been repealed, the idea that all football fans should be treated harshly, because of a tiny minority, is not acceptable. It’s hard to imagine any other group that would be treated like this. Given that heavy police presence is neither effective in reducing violence or financially viable, one must wonder whether the criminalisation of those at matches is just predicated purely on outdated stereotyping.
You can donate to Isla Caton’s fund here.