Battering fans, British style

Italian and Spanish cops still like to baton-charge supporters, but the British have found more insidious ways to ruin the game.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

Has the ‘English disease’ of football hooliganism returned? Crowd trouble at both legs of Manchester United’s Champions League quarter-final against AS Roma and Tottenham’s UEFA Cup game in Seville has reopened the old debate about the Great British Ruck.

In case you’re itching to know the answer, I won’t keep you in suspense. The answer is ‘no’. The violence in Rome and Seville had very little to do with the mass football violence that we saw in the 1970s and 80s and much more to do with the aggressive crowd control tactics of the Italian and Spanish police. According to Dr Clifford Stott, senior lecturer in social psychology at Liverpool University, the trouble was ‘a reflection of poor crowd management styles of the police, particularly in Italy and Spain’. In other words, if riot cops indiscriminately baton charge English football fans then don’t be surprised if you’ve got a riot on your hands.

Although UEFA has refused directly to criticise the police’s heavy-handed tactics in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, its spokesman William Gaillard has urged police across Europe to follow the Britain’s lead in crowd control. ‘Our president, Michel Platini, has repeatedly asked police forces to learn from the British experience and way of handling things’, said Gaillard. ‘A lot of the crowd-control practice in England has been established over 20-25 years, given there was a very serious problem before that.’

Certainly, the British police no longer go in for the confrontational baton charges that we saw last week in Rome and Seville. However, that doesn’t mean we should take it as good coin that all British anti-hooligan measures should be slavishly copied abroad. Take the use of banning orders that, in theory, are used to restrict the movement of known troublemakers. Sports minister Richard Caborn believes that banning orders have been instrumental in reducing football hooliganism. ‘In Britain, football has been transformed over the last 10 years in terms of police tactics and stewarding in the grounds, and banning orders have had a big impact with more than 3,500 troublemakers taken out of the equation’, said Caborn. Indeed the British government is so fond of banning orders that it has just extended the maximum period from three to five years.

But is it true that more banning orders result in less violence? Football violence in our domestic game had been in decline long before the power to impose banning orders was significantly widened by the Football (Disorder) Act 2000. What about English fans causing trouble abroad? The relative absence of violence involving England fans at Euro 2004 and the World Cup in Germany last year has been attributed to the new powers in the 2000 Act to require fans subject to banning orders to surrender their passports. But, in reality, the violent scenes witnessed in Charleroi, Belgium during Euro 2000 had nothing to do with the presence or otherwise of ‘known hooligans’ and everything to do with the aggressive tactics of the Belgian police who used indiscriminate mass arrests as a form of crowd control.

The trouble in Belgium was, like the violence in Rome and Seville, a product of the heavy-handed policing style rather than something instigated by known hooligans. Although 965 England fans were arrested in Euro 2000, only one was actually charged with any offence. The Dutch police, by contrast, used a much more softly-softly style to control English fans in the same tournament and the consequence was, unsurprisingly, very little trouble.

Not only is the effectiveness of banning orders highly questionable; they have been imposed on fans who haven’t been violent but have merely breached ground regulations, for example by swearing, persistently standing or being drunk. Three Chelsea fans, who were arrested for throwing celery at Stamford Bridge in breach of the risible celery ban, now face prosecution and banning orders. Earlier this year, two Irish Manchester United fans ended up in court after unfurling till roll to celebrate Henrik Larsson’s goal in the FA Cup tie against Aston Villa. ‘Nobody got hurt by or made a complaint about our till rolls. To think we could still actually get a conviction from this is a load of shite’, said Kevin Ryan, one of the arrested fans. ‘They’re just a bit of fun, which is what watching football is supposed to be.’

Amanda Matthews from the Stand Up Sit Down campaign told me that she regularly hears from fans who have received banning orders for relatively innocuous misdemeanours. ‘West Ham banned one of our fans for five years for calling Dennis Wise a fucking cunt, despite that being an opinion I think many would share!’ she said. ‘I think the best example was a fan who got a banning order for being drunk – he’d had a couple, but no more – outside Reading’s ground. He was also recovering from an operation on his foot that meant he couldn’t walk properly, hence the policing thinking he was far more drunk than he was. And so he got a banning order.’

English football may be free of the disease of hooliganism these days but there’s a real danger that anti-hooligan measures are turning the terraces into fun-free zones.

Read on – Mick Hume on hooligan hypochondria – or ODD (obsessive disorder disorder) – in The Times (London):

‘Never mind Life on Mars; on Tuesday night, life in Manchester felt like another planet. I left Old Trafford in a rare state of euphoria over the beautiful game, United having put seven goals past AS Roma. Then I got to the pub just in time to hear the ITV news kick off with a shock report from Old Trafford headlined “Tonight: the Ugly Face of Football”….’

Read Mick’s column here.

spiked issue: Sport

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Topics Politics


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