Football fans, let’s burst this authoritarian ‘bubble’

Why is there so little liberal outrage over the ‘bubbling’ of fans by police, when it assaults both justice and freedom of movement?

Duleep Allirajah

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It was around lunchtime last Saturday that the Twitter taunts started to appear on my timeline. Less than 200 Millwall fans had travelled to the away fixture at Leeds. A large and vocal away support is a sign of a ‘proper’ football club. ‘Did you come by minibus?’, ‘Is that all you take away?’ – we’ve all heard the terrace taunts when a team brings a small number of visiting fans. And on Saturday, Millwall’s paltry travelling contingent was greeted with a chorus of derision on Twitter.

But appearances can be deceptive. What the ‘haters’ didn’t realise – or else chose to overlook – was that Millwall fans were boycotting the game. Why? Because the fixture was a ‘bubble’ trip. Never been bubbled? I wouldn’t recommend it. Allow me to explain.

Although mass crowd trouble at football matches is largely a thing of the past in this country, the police regularly impose draconian restrictions on fans’ freedom to travel at designated Category C (high risk) fixtures – so called ‘bubble matches’. The restrictions in place for the Leeds v Millwall game were typical of bubble trips. The kick-off time was brought forward from 3pm to 12.30pm. A voucher system was in operation for fans who wished to travel to the game. Fans with vouchers had no choice but to travel on designated coaches which left Bermondsey at the ungodly time of 5.30am in the morning. Vouchers are exchanged for match tickets at a pre-arranged collection point during their journey – typically this will be a motorway service station. Fans couldn’t travel independently by train or car; they had to use the official coaches. If you were a Millwall fan living in the north of England, the only way you could have attended the match was to travel down to London and take the official coach.

Who decided that Leeds v Millwall was such an incendiary fixture that it warranted – and not for the first time – bubble-match status? Not the two clubs, both of which supported the relaxation of restrictions which had been in place in previous years. West Yorkshire Police made the decision unilaterally without consulting fans and ignoring the stated wishes of the two clubs. In those circumstances, I reckon Millwall fans should be applauded for taking a stand against bubble tactics. It’s a pity rival supporters can’t set aside club allegiances for once and show a bit of solidarity (old-fashioned concept, I know). The police shouldn’t be allowed to get away with suspending freedom of movement in this way. This isn’t just an issue which affects Millwall fans, the poster boys for football violence. According to a Freedom of Information Act survey, published by the Manifesto Club in 2012, there had been at least 48 bubble matches in the previous decade affecting 14 league clubs in England and Wales.

Last month, a 15-year-old Hull City fan, Louis Cooper, launched a legal challenge against West Yorkshire police’s decision to make his team’s trip to Huddersfield on 30 March a bubble match. The travel restrictions meant that Cooper, who lives in Manchester, would have to make a 350-mile round trip to watch the game even though he lives just 30 miles from the stadium. West Yorkshire Police, in their infinite wisdom, decided that the match was high risk because the 5.20pm kick-off time allowed fans more drinking time. It’s an absurd decision, not least because there is no historic animosity between Huddersfield and Hull City fans. John Prescott, the former deputy prime minister and long-time Hull MP until 2010, described the curbs on away fans in his Daily Mirror column as ‘the most draconian travel restrictions since miners’ strike pickets were targeted’. As he points out, not one single Hull City fan was arrested for a drink-related football offence throughout the whole of last season.

In response to the threat of legal action, the police have slightly relaxed the travel restrictions, but these minor concessions have failed to placate Hull fans who are planning their own protests. The Football Supporters Federation (FSF) believes there is seldom any justification for bubble-match tactics. ‘While we recognise the concessions made in the Hull case, the FSF remain fundamentally opposed [to] any restrictions placed on travelling fans unless there is a real and imminent threat of disorder’, says Amanda Jacks, caseworker at the FSF. ‘Our inboxes have overflowed with emails from ordinary, respectable people whose anger is palpable.’

John Prescott is right to draw comparisons with the policing of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. The police imposed punitive travel restrictions on striking miners in order to prevent ‘flying picketing’ – that is, miners from one colliery travelling to picket another. Striking miners were stopped from leaving Yorkshire to join picket lines in Nottinghamshire. The police routinely intercepted northward-bound Kent miners at the Dartford river crossing and turned them back. At the time, there was uproar from liberal-minded folk appalled at the infringement on civil liberties. Today, however, the criminalisation of football fans goes largely unopposed. While there are howls of righteous indignation when demonstrating students are kettled by police, there is silence when the same thing happens to football fans. The FSF and John Prescott apart, where is the public outcry over bubble matches?

Football fans, it seems, are still seen as uncouth thugs; a riot waiting to happen. Millwall fans, in particular, haven’t shaken off their reputation for thuggery and racism, which has been shaped by sensationalist media exposés, from the infamous 1977 BBC Panorama documentary – starring cartoon thugs Harry the Dog and F-Troop – to the recent Sky Sports News report on racism, which showed Millwall fans racially abusing Leeds forward El Hadji Diouf.

I’m not suggesting that Millwall fans are all pure as the driven snow. But does the misbehaviour of a small minority of idiots justify bubble-trip restrictions on all the club’s fans? I don’t think so. It’s completely disproportionate. Football violence, more broadly, is a diminishing and negligible problem – even when it comes to Millwall. Home Office statistics show that only 65 Millwall fans were arrested for football offences during the whole of last season – 39 if we just include away games. It’s hardly a hooligan epidemic, is it? More broadly, arrest rates have fallen to historically low levels. Total attendances at all matches in the 2011-12 season exceeded 37million, yet only 2,363 arrests were made for football offences – a rate of less than one arrest per game.

Not only is bubble-match policing disproportionate; it’s unjust, too, because it treats all fans as criminals. It penalises fans not for anything they have done but for what they might do. Millwall fans are being punished because of their reputation, not because they’ve committed any crime. ‘We live in a free country and this is the first step to a police state’, says Prescott. I don’t often find myself agreeing with Prezza, but he’s spot on. Arrest someone if they break the law, but don’t punish fans who have committed no crime other than wanting to watch a game of football. There’s no place in a civilised society for bubble matches.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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