Kicking Fans Out Of Football
"….There were often disturbances after football matches and three young men were put in the local prison for 'outrageously and riotously behaving themselves at football play in Cheapside'..."
Nothing new there then, except for the above isn`t a recent headline from your local paper but an account written in 1576; fast forward nearly 500 years to 2007 and two young men similarly found themselves in the local police station over night having committed the heinous crime of throwing paper streamers at Old Trafford. Despite the arresting officer wanting to push for a full conviction and banning order, these two Manchester Utd fans got off lightly with a Binding to Keep the Peace. Putting aside the absurdity of the arrest, charge and subsequent court appearance, I wonder how much this exercise cost the tax payer in the name of ridding our stadiums of anti social behaviour?
So while society has arguably moved on a tad since the sixteenth century why do football supporters still find themselves policed as if permanently on the brink of "outrageously and riotously behaving themselves" and stewarded as though civilisation will collapse after a few wanker gestures in the direction of the opposition fans?
Notwithstanding our predecessors bringing havoc to Cheapside all those centuries ago, hooliganism didn`t just arrive on our terraces in the 70`s; go back to the romantically viewed White Horse Cup Final of 1923 and you`ll discover that hundreds of supporters actually broke into Wembley, forcing a pitch invasion only cleared with the legendary white steed! In the 1940`s 50 Chelsea supporters forced entry into a garden neighbouring Stamford Bridge, threatening the owners and stealing ladders in order to break into their stadium; the subsequent court case had the judge remarking that the fans were "excited" and "enterprising"!!
So what changed, when did us football supporters start to be viewed as such threat to society? The arrival of teddy boys, mods and rockers in the 60s awakened the nation to the fact that teenagers were no longer docile, mini versions of their parents. Various and notorious riots brought delinquency to the fore and the press delighted in running lurid headlines on top of grossly exaggerated stories. Shortly afterwards equally sensationalist stories, regarding football "hooligans" started appearing to fill the gap mods and rockers left, that soon evolved into the country being led to believe that it`s moral fabric was under threat. Of course there were horrendous incidents of hooliganism throughout the 70s and 80s that I certainly don`t wish to trivialise (and there is no doubt that many were put off from attending games) but these were isolated, despite the frenzy being whipped up by the media who of course never considered that there may be two sides to every story.
Ever quick to jump on a media driven bandwagon, MPs were soon demanding action while the judiciary were handing down tough sentences to football hooligans (incidentally there is no legal definition as to what, exactly comprises a hooligan) that were far harsher than sentences for comparative but not football related offences. Indeed today, find yourself nicked for a "football related" offence today and not only do you face financial or a custodial penalty but you`re also hit with a ban from attending matches, being in the vicinity of a ground on a match day and even having to surrender your passport when your team or country play abroad! A nice double whammy of a deterrent!
The 1984-5 season saw the coincidence of a Thatcher Government at it`s hysterical peak over football violence with arrest rates showing just 0.034% per 1000 attending matches with a joint arrest/ejection of 0.072% per 1000. The following season - while newspapers continue to vilify football fans as scum or a disease - the arrest and ejection figures fell by 51% and 33% respectively. Still though matches were over policed, supporters saw their right to move freely eroded and the assumption of guilt over innocence ruled the day; supporters - the vast majority guilty of only following their team - were treated in a way no other group of society had been before and to an extent this echoes today. Ever stepped off a train and had a police camera shoved in your face while a dog yaps around your ankles for no other reason that you`ve travelled to support your team?
The key words in the policing of football fans over this decade were "rigid control" and many grounds saw the erection of fences and the penning in of fans. The absolute belief that this was the only way to manage football fans saw tragic and lethal consequences on the 15 April 1989 at Hillsborough, a stadium totally unfit for purpose that was chosen by the FA to host that years FA Cup semi final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. The tragedy saw subsequent Taylor report filled with recommendations but the one that the Government seized upon with glee was that all seater stadia be introduced, the idea being they would be a potential cure all for crowd safety and would hopefully see the death of hooliganism once and for all.
So, nearly 20 years on from Hillsborough, with football under the spot light like never before, with billions of pounds sloshing around in the collective coffers, countless new fans arriving at shiny new stadiums every Saturday afternoon, what has changed? A question worth examining in the context of the game many of us are getting increasingly disgruntled with and for some, disenfranchised from.
Let me take you first to the Licensing & Environmental Protection Panel of Wolverhampton where, in 2003, the sub panel of the Molineux Stadium Advisory Committee- comprising various City Councillors, a representative from the FLA, and others from the emergency services - met to discuss, among other things, what music grounds should play prior to kick off. After discussion it was decided that the playing of the 1960s Ska hit, The Liquidator, should be banned at Wolves and West Brom. The reason? It would prevent crowd incitement and thereby create a more family orientated atmosphere. I can see you shaking your heads in disbelief but trust me, the meeting was not held on 1 April…. And if you`re still not incredulous, the practice of reading out the number of away fans included in the overall attendance has ceased at my club, West Ham, due to fears that the numbers of travelling supporters could somehow incite crowd unrest. Yes, really.
It is a long held belief of mine that music is used not to entertain but control the masses and to some extent the great and good of Wolverhampton confirm my suspicions. Think about it, blaring music prevents the two tribes of supporters chanting at each other and building an atmospheric cauldron prior to kick off; in particular uplifting music could take away any pre match hype or aggression you may feel; the desire to 'gloat` to the opposing teams supporters is somewhat subdued as Tom Hark or more recently, Chelsea Daggers encourages you to jump around in delight after your team have scored.
It seems that in recent years stewards on the turnstiles are more intent on searching your bag and sometimes we`re event treated to a full body pat down by a man mountain from the security team employed by the club to boost the number of stewards. Yes, of course I accept that the odd missile gets launched onto the pitch once in a blue moon and it would be naïve to ignore a terrorist threat but what I fail to understand is what warped mind sees threat in an old lady`s umbrella, or what sort of sicko would possibly consider that an extremely senior gentlemen would even think of sticking a blade to his pate and then sticking a bobble hat on top to hide it? Further, would anybody, however deranged, launch their car or house keys at their most detested player? The removal of lids from bottles is a particular favourite of mine. Why? Why remove a bottle top when a carton of Ribena would make a pretty lethal missile when launched with by a strong arm with a good aim or when you can buy a scalding hot cup of coffee that is served in a cup with a lid? Want to be frustrated? Ring your club safety officer and ask for a copy of a risk assessment that proves the risk of danger so great we`re subjected en masse to these petty and annoying searches.
Unless you`re a dodgy sort of character, like me you probably only come across the police when attending a game. Am I alone in finding their stance aggressive and their expressions disdainful? Never a cheery "looking forward to the game, love?" Actually, I fib; when attending Cardiff nearly two years ago for the FA Cup Final, I was indeed asked if I was looking forward to the game; my retort of "what do you care" was rapidly swallowed as I looked at the friendly and cheerful face of an ordinary copper in ordinary uniform. In my experience, the policing of fans on my three trips to Cardiff was exemplary; low key and friendly. Indeed, when lost, desolate and holding back tears (well, the husband was, I kept a stiff upper lip…) after our defeat to Liverpool, we stopped and asked an officer for directions. I congratulated them on their approach to law and order and said that they should have a chat with their counterparts in the Met and recommend they adopt their practice. The response? "You`re joking, they wouldn`t take any notice of us country bumpkins". Well they should, particularly in light of their recent threat to charge the clubs for their presence. While writing this, I`ve received a text from a Liverpool supporting mate who informed me that a helicopter was hovering over Anfield for their match versus Wigan. Wigan?! But I digress. We`ve all seen them in numbers, in riot gear, holding snarling Alsatians or looking down on us from the lofty heights of a giant horse. Yes some games do have potential for trouble and a higher police presence than usual is no doubt sensible, but even the most intellectually challenged of fans knows that he`s looking at Big Trouble if he steps out of line in or in the vicinity of a football ground. Indeed, I`d argue that the changing demographic of supporters has far more to do with the lack of trouble in and close to our stadiums than huge numbers of Her Majesty`s Constabulary.
The home fans get off relatively lightly; it is the hardy away fan that is more likely to be on the receiving end of riot police controlling their movements, pulling over their coaches for searches and to ensure alcohol isn`t being illegally consumed; demanding they walk through airport style metal detectors before being allowed to leave the train station; they`re the ones whose mug shots fill the galleries of the Police Intelligence Units and they`re the ones whose human rights are infringed as they`re marched the scenic route back the train station (sometimes just in time to see the last train home leave platform 3) irrespective of the fact that their car was just 50 yards from the turnstiles or an arthritic knee makes walking difficult. All in the name of our safety and that of others of course and perhaps because some idiot has been advising all and sundry on an internet forum that he`s nicked his dads hammer and intends to crack the skulls of 50 home fans with it. Single handedly. After all, everybody knows that wearing Stone Island makes you invincible.
In their quest to ensure that the only bums on seats in their nice, shiny, new stadiums belong to families (or better still groups of tourists with a few quid to spend in the club shops) and to prove that they are indeed a Family Club to the exclusion of all others - particularly young, white men - stewarding is reaching new heights. The zeal of some clubs to rid their grounds of anti social behaviour (passionate supporting to you and I) knows no bounds. Raise your voice and you get a stern glare from a fluorescent orange clad keeper of the nations morals (sorry, safety steward), do it again and you get a warning. Do it a third time and chuck in a swear word and you run the risk of being advised that you`re shortly to feel the full weight of the law on your shoulders - and a boot up your backside as you`re shown the door.
Celebrate a goal for longer than 30 seconds and you`re likely to get a visit from not a steward but a member of the security team - you know the ones, they`re often at least two foot taller and three stone heavier than your average steward - advising you that "next time you do that, son, you`re out". Need I go on? Probably not, am sure by now you`ve got my gist. But can I just say how much it amuses me to see the sheer panic and trepidation on the face of some of these stewards as they rise to their feet at the same time as we do to celebrate a goal, to double check that celebration won`t escalate into serious disorder. As if…
What these so called family orientated clubs need to realise pretty sharpish is that these fans who they`re so keen to monitor and control are the backbone of their clubs. They`re the ones who`ll get up a 4.00am on a freezing January morning to travel the length of the country to see their team lose and they`re the ones who`ll plough their money into supporting their team regardless of whether they`re Champions of the Premiership or facing relegation from the Conference. Many of them tell us that they feel that their support and custom simply isn`t wanted, that they`re viewed not as good and loyal supporters but only capable scaring off the docile fan who`ll sit for the duration, take photos of the triumphant goal scorer regardless of which team he plays for and kit their kids (and themselves!) out in the full strip no matter how often they bring out a new one.
Reading back through my words, perhaps I`ve laboured the point. Some will know and identify with what I`ve written, for others it simply won`t resonate with their own "match day experience". Fair enough, match day crowds are large and while we all go to watch and support or teams our preferences in how we do so differ. Nothing wrong with that at all; you pay your money, you know the words to Bubbles and to me I couldn`t care less if it is your first match or your thousandth.
What I do care about, very much in fact, is the treatment are sizeable minority of fans are subjected to you and their alienation from their clubs. To me it seems we`re just as controlled as the fans in the 80s - if not more so - albeit it not necessarily to stop disorder but to ensure that the days of swaying terraces, songs, passion, banter, wit and just having a laugh with your mates are truly eradicated just in case that nasty disease comes back again….
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