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by Duleep Allirajah
Watching football is not a crime, so why are away fans being treated – and manhandled – like criminals?
Lord Justice Taylor’s inquiry into the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy is said to have changed British football for good. The perimeter fencing has been torn down. Standing terraces have been replaced by all-seater stadiums. Fans are no longer shepherded into pens like caged animals. The matchday experience now feels more civilised; far less like a prisoner of war camp. Football is safer. Some might say too safe; the atmosphere anaesthetised. All these things are true. But, as I’ve discovered this season while travelling to Palace away games, fans are still treated by the authorities as a riot waiting to happen.
On Saturday, I travelled with 1,600 Crystal Palace fans to Derby. There was no trouble on our train. There was no trouble in the city-centre pub I was drinking in, which was packed to the rafters with away fans. There was no hint of trouble on the way to the stadium. The mood inside the stadium was carnivalesque. No missiles were thrown – just balloons. Nobody tried to invade the pitch. This wasn’t an incendiary fixture. We hate Brighton, Derby fans hate Forest. There is no ‘previous’ between the two clubs.
And yet, despite the complete absence of any crowd trouble, Palace fans found themselves on the receiving end of some very aggressive stewarding. As one supporter recounted on the cpfc.org bulletin board: ‘Horrible scenes at the end, punches being thrown by stewards, stewards reading people their rights, trying to block people filming the treatment they was dishing out, blowing kisses at fans who questioned them’. Throughout the game the visiting fans were filmed by a man in a fluorescent coat with a camcorder. Was he a cop or a steward? The Palace fans were in no doubt who he was. ‘You’re just a c**t with a camera’, they chanted. Far from preventing disorder, the filming of fans aggravated an already tense situation. Palace chairman Steve Parish has said he is ‘very disappointed by the treatment of our fans’ and will be writing to Derby County to complain.
According to the most recent Home Office statistics, the number of football-related arrests is very low, averaging less than one arrest per match. Yet, although mass football violence has largely disappeared, supporters still feel they are being treated as criminals by the authorities. Amanda Jacks, caseworker at the Football Supporters Federation (FSF), says that the heavy-handed stewarding at Derby is not an isolated incident. She deals with similar complaints from supporters every week. ‘Ordinary stewards are generally not a problem and do a good job’, she tells me. ‘But we have increasing concerns about the “response team” stewards clubs are increasingly using.’ This new breed of ‘quick response’ steward is typically provided by private security firms to perform the physical elements of crowd control. Jacks has a growing dossier of horror stories to recount. ‘Just yesterday I received a complaint from a supporter with cerebral palsy - meaning he can’t use his left arm - who had his arm shoved up his back and was manhandled by at least four “response team” stewards outside the ground’, she says.
Surely the Derby stewards must have had a good reason to wade in? I suspect they would argue that Palace fans were breaking the law. Technically, they might be correct. If we were guilty of any crime it was persistent standing. It’s fairly normal for away fans to stand throughout a match. That’s what makes football awaydays so enjoyable. And yet, this type of behaviour, which most football fans would regard as normal, falls foul of the law. And herein lies the underlying problem. The stewards are only enforcing codes of conduct which are framed by legislation. Standing at football per se isn’t illegal but persistent standing in seated areas in contravention of ground regulations is a civil offence. This is a legacy of the Taylor report which proposed the introduction of all-seater stadiums.
The prohibition of persistent standing in the top two tiers of English football is, quite frankly, nonsensical. I get why rioting or throwing darts at a football match might be a safety hazard. But why standing? A quick glance at the Football Licensing Authority statistics on stadium injuries suggests that persistent standing isn’t a significant problem. Moving around maybe but not standing. Tripping or falling was the main cause of injury - 552 out of 1326 recorded injuries in the 2010-11 season. One in 10 injuries was caused by spectators being hit by a football yet where is the clamour for balls to be banned?
The FSF is running campaign - ‘Watching football is not a crime’ - which highlights the harassment of fans by police and stewards. The FSF quite rightly wants the authorities to exercise more common sense when policing football matches. However, I think we need to go further and get rid of all the draconian legislation which effectively criminalises traditional fan behaviour. Persistent standing, indecent chanting, being drunk in a stadium, drinking alcohol in view of the pitch, running onto the pitch – all these things which fans tend to do in high spirits are unlawful. Watching football shouldn’t be a crime so let’s scrap the laws which make hooligans of us all.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.-----
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