Offside, 22 August

The teenage hooligan phenomenon is more hearsay than hard fact.

Duleep Allirajah

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Topics Politics

This week is Hooligan Awareness Week. Well, not officially, but that’s what it should be designated.

This, you see, is the time of the year when the Home Office publishes its football arrest statistics. It has become customary for a police spokesman to mark the occasion by announcing that the British disease of hooliganism hasn’t gone away, that violence now takes place away from football grounds, and that hi-tech cyber-yobs are now using the internet and mobile phones to arrange ‘tear-ups’.

But this year’s newspaper headlines carried a sinister new message. ‘Teen terrors are new soccer thugs’, declared The Times. ‘New generation of teenage hooligans threatens football’, warned the Independent. ‘Usually football hooligans were in the 17-30 age range’, said David Swift, deputy chief constable of Staffordshire Police. ‘We are now talking about kids – 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds – not the mature hooligan.’ (1) This new breed of teeny tearaways is being blamed for a 20 percent increase in football offences last season.

This is good news for the dwindling band of ‘mature’ hooligans who are getting a bit too old and portly for street combat (‘Oi mate, do you do this Aquascutum jacket in XXL?’). Many of their erstwhile comrades have retired to publish their kick-and-tell memoirs and appear on salacious TV documentaries. But now it seems the veteran top boys are no longer waddling into battle alone and have established the type of soccer thug youth academies that the hooligan community has long been crying out for.

So who exactly are these next generation hooligans? ‘They are followers of football who do not necessarily go to the games’, says David Swift. It seems that the apprentice hooligans are more likely to cause trouble at bus stops and railway stations. The subject of teeny thugs has been hotly debated on the Crystal Palace internet bulletin board. A number of Eagles’ fans have expressed concern that a new crew of under-age thugs – the self-styled Dirty Thirty Youth – has been causing trouble at Palace games. The evidence, however, largely consists of hearsay and speculation.

Occasionally a young hoodlum gatecrashes the debate to post a menacing message, usually in text-message speak, on the bulletin board (u mug – we r here 2 stay – r u old bill?). However, the truth is that not much is known about these wannabe thugs except that they are kitted out in regulation fake Burberry and are probably too young to shave. Home Office figures show that 35 Palace fans were arrested in the whole of last season and only eight of these were for violent disorder or public disorder offences. So if a few pimply ruffians are hell bent on causing mayhem, they are not doing a very good job of it. It’s safe to say that the social fabric of south London is not yet in imminent danger.

Indeed, if anyone takes the trouble to look beneath the headlines and examine the statistics, it becomes apparent that soccer violence remains a fairly insignificant problem in Britain. Although football-related arrests rose by 19 percent last season, this increase is largely due to tougher policing – or ‘low tolerance policing’ to use the Home Office jargon – rather than any resurgence of large-scale football violence. ‘The increase in the number of football-related offences reflects a tough policing response to a lingering hooliganism problem’, said Home Office minister Hazel Blears (2).

The headline figures also obscure the fact that the definition of a football offence has been steadily broadened over the years. A third of arrests last year were for drink, drugs and touting offences – not what most people would classify as hooliganism. Moreover the arrest figures must be viewed within the context of rising attendances at football matches. While the number of arrests at league games has remained fairly stable over the past decade, fluctuating between 3000 and 4000, the total number of spectators has risen from 21.6million in 1993/4 to 28.3million in 2002/3 (3).

So while there were 758 more arrests last year, the actual arrest rate – the ratio of arrests to spectators – remained pretty much the same at a paltry 0.01 percent – an average of fewer than two arrests per game. But then ‘Arrests levels remain low’ or ‘Vast majority of matches remain trouble free’ – two phrases used in the Home Office statistics summary – do not make for attention-grabbing headlines, do they?

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Teen terrors are new soccer thugs, The Times, 19 August 2003

(2) Targeted help to tackle football hooliganism, Home Office press release, 18 August 2003

(3) Statistics on football-related arrests and banning orders (.pdf), Season 2002-2003, Home Office

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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