In the war zone that was central Leeds, with riot vans at every vantage point, a group of fans charging a double decker bus said everything about the current reality of trying to maintain order in football.
It was the biggest security operation the Premier League has ever known — 900 West Yorkshire police officers, working on orders that Manchester United fans, who were funnelled out of the main railway station in buses, should be segregated.
But one of the buses became briefly stranded in a logjam on Victoria Road, allowing a Leeds group to race towards it, in front of traffic, their faces contorted as they hurled the taunts about Mason Greenwood’s rape arrest, which have been washing around social media for weeks.
900 police officers were on hand to try to control the crowds at Elland Road on Sunday
CRIME SHEET OF FAN DISORDER THAT SHAMES LEEDS
August 21: Everton’s Lucas Digne appears to have a lighter thrown at him in the 2-2 draw at Elland Road.
August 24: A woman is escorted away by stewards after running on to the pitch in the 3-0 Carabao Cup victory over Crewe Alexandra.
October 2: A fan is banned from attending matches after throwing a water bottle towards the pitch in the 1-0 defeat of Watford.
October 23: Wolves manager Bruno Lage complains that Leeds fans hurled cigarette lighters at his players.
November 30: Leeds condemn the homophobic chants aimed by their supporters at Crystal Palace midfielder Conor Gallagher.
December 5: Leeds are investigated by the FA after Brentford’s Sergi Canos and Bryan Mbeumo appear to be struck by objects thrown from the Leeds fans at Elland Road. Leeds chief executive Victor Orta has to be held back by others in the directors’ box after a fan verbally abuses him.
December 18: A fan is arrested on suspicion of shouting racist abuse during the 4-1 defeat by Arsenal. Gunners goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale jokes that he ‘pocketed £17’ from Leeds fans after they chuck coins at him.
January 2: Burnley defender Matt Lowton is hit by a full bottle of Coke as he celebrates his side’s goal in a 3-1 loss. The defender needs treatment.
February 12: Merseyside Police say a Goodison Park steward was butted and officers were punched in the away end as Everton thrash Leeds 3-0.
Yesterday: Fans launch objects at Manchester United’s Anthony Elanga as he celebrates the visitors’ third goal in a crushing 4-2 defeat for Leeds against their bitter rivals. The young Swede is hit on the head and needs treatment.
From inside the bus, the Manchester United contingent were delighted to give it back, with hand gestures and taunts before a window was pushed open and beer poured sloshed through it. That the Manchester taunters seemed to be boys — no more than 16 — bears out what police have been saying about the current generation of football hooligans for more than two years now.
There were challenges elsewhere across the city centre, too. At a Wetherspoon’s pub, rival fans tried to fight each other. Police intervened.
At 10 minutes before kick-off, this military-level operation threatened to turn nasty.
The exit from the Elland Road underpass, a few hundred yards from the ground, was blocked by a line of stewards, to allow the last of the Manchester United buses to pass before it.
The underground cavern became rammed with 200 Leeds fans, at risk of missing kick-off. ‘Charge the line,’ someone shouted as boos echoed around the place. ‘What’s the problem?’ ‘Run through the line.’
Mounted police arrived in support and the buses safely proceeded to their fortified parking area. The buses were certainly a potential incitement.
Fans hammered on the windows at Leeds supporters.
At least two buses paraded a Turkish flag. That’s their way of glorifying in the deaths of Leeds fans before a European tie in Istanbul, 22 years ago. The last time Manchester United played here in front of a full house — a League Cup tie, 11 years ago — the fighting centred on the McDonald’s near Elland Road where, the hate being such as it is, the red of the distinctive signage is permanently removed.
‘A man fell to the floor outside and a car ran over his arm — he just got up and walked away,’ says an experienced former Greater Manchester Police football police officer on duty that night. He and other officers were running in a park late that evening, as part of the wind-down, when they came across fans still fighting. ‘It was getting on for midnight.’
But even in 2011, there was nothing like the same level of online taunting and abuse during the build-up. Greenwood’s arrest has given the Leeds fan base a precious weapon.
The words ‘bender’ and ‘sex offender’ form part of chant which has been circulated on Twitter by ‘supporters’ — some of them barely men, most of them anonymous. Another includes ‘barmy’ and ‘Armley’ — the location of a local prison.
A video of fans singing the first of those ditties in the concourse at Villa Park has been shared hundreds of times. ‘We didn’t have this in the past, this stirring up of the hate,’ says another former police officer.
A song aimed at Cristiano Ronaldo was belted out at a nearby pub prior to kick-off
At the Old Peacock pub outside Elland Road, the song being belted out had been expanded to take in Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Scholes.
A rape claim against Ronaldo by a woman in Los Angeles has drawn him into the focus of this intellectually challenged fringe. Scholes is apparently targeted because of an innocuous social media post.
The irony of Leeds United dedicating this match to the campaign against sexist abuse, ‘Her Game Too’, was lost in the sea of bile.
As a large number of officers lined up in the teeming rain near the end of the game, the two sets of fans traded Greenwood and Jimmy Savile taunts, with Bradford-born Greenwood evidently someone the Manchester group were happy to sacrifice. ‘He’s Yorkshire like you,’ they sang.
The use of Savile by Manchester United fans and others is now so established that Leeds supporters have been known to counter it by going to games kitted out as the abuser, with a blue jacket, blonde wig and cigar. No one seems prepared to disrupt this disgusting game of tit-for-tat.
The hate and loathing continued throughout the game in the virtual realm. Many took great delight in the coin-throwing. Anthony Elanga was abused because he had the temerity to show he’d been hit.
Anthony Elanga (C) was hit by a coin thrown by the home supporters in the second half
Stewards were left far from impressed with the actions of the Leeds fans at Elland Road
A clip of Elanga pointing to his badge when he scored triggered a round of Manchester gloating, which was endlessly circulated. ‘We All Hate Leeds Scum’ generally accompanied it.
The most challenging part of the police operation came at the end, when a small minority of the 200 home fans who had emerged onto Elland Road looked to get at Manchester United fans, who were leaving the West Stand gate for their cars.
West Yorkshire officers needed to be on the lookout for the trouble-makers, who were attempting to avoid detection by lowering their hoods and trying to disguise themselves.
Other Leeds fans, who were held back by police while the Manchester contingent dispersed, were clearly frustrated.
Dozens of young men, barely old enough to know what their words meant, sang about ‘the runway’ and ‘the snow’.
In the end, the size and coordination of the police operation prevented major disorder at West Yorkshire’s highest risk event in a decade.
There were four arrests and no injuries, though no one yet knows what other incidents might have happened across the city.
The unremitting weather — ‘PC Rain’ as officers always call it — played a major part.
‘If it had been a sunny day there would have been a lot more trouble,’ said one West Yorkshire Police source.
It also helped that police had managed to persuade the Premier League to move kick-off time from the original Saturday slot of 5.30pm.
‘That would have also made things very different,’ said the source.
But this level of resource stretches a force’s capacity to police beyond football.
‘It’s not sustainable,’ said one of the former officers. ‘You can’t produce 900 officers every time.’