Football disorder to 'get worse before it gets better' says expert, but police have powers they need

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Football authorities and police are scrambling to catch up after a nasty and unexpected spike in disorder – and it is likely to get worse before it gets better, an expert has told Sportsmail.

There has been an almost 50 per cent rise in football-related arrests at the half-way point of the season, which has stirred deep-seated fears of a return to the dark days of the seventies and eighties.

The spike in disorder appears to be the result of a new generation of young fans who have started attending matches, but do not conform to the codes of behaviour established during the past 20 years.

A Leicester City supporter went onto the pitch in their match against Nottingham Forest

A Leicester City supporter went onto the pitch in their match against Nottingham Forest

After a string of weekends punctuated by trouble inside and outside football grounds there is no sign of an immediate improvement in behaviour, and it may take the entire season before the police and football’s governing bodies can regain the control enjoyed before the lockdown brought about by the Covid pandemic.

‘My suspicion is we will see problems throughout this season and it could be they actually get worse towards the business end of the season, before it gets better,’ said Geoff Pearson, a professor of law at University of Manchester. ‘But after that it will get better.’

Young fans appear to be off the leash after two years of lockdown. 

‘Fans are hitting it too hard at the moment because they are still excited about being back,’ Pearson, an expert in football violence and policing, told Sportsmail.

Aston Villa pair Matty Cash and Lucas Digne were hit with a bottle thrown from an Everton section of the stadium during a match at Goodison Park in January this year

Aston Villa pair Matty Cash and Lucas Digne were hit with a bottle thrown from an Everton section of the stadium during a match at Goodison Park in January this year

Earlier this season, Burnley's Matt Lowton was hit by a Coke bottle at Leeds United

Earlier this season, Burnley’s Matt Lowton was hit by a Coke bottle at Leeds United

And Chelsea defender Antonio  Rudiger was targeted with a missile by Tottenham fans

And Chelsea defender Antonio  Rudiger was targeted with a missile by Tottenham fans

‘We have had a big turnover in terms of ticket-holders. It is likely we have a lot of new fans… It may be a lot of these fans still haven’t quite learned how they should be behaving, or they are not deterred by the risk of losing a season ticket.’

HARD FACTS OF FAN DISORDER

• In 2019-20, 34% of games had an incident reported, but this season it is 48% (almost half of all matches)

• Arrests are up – 802 football related arrests this season, which is an increase of 47% from 2019-20 (547) 

• The numbers are high despite fewer games than in 2019-20, because of games being called off – 1581 games have been played in 2021-22, compared to 1670 games in 19-20

• Biggest increase in reported incidents is in the Championship and National League. Up 58% in Championship and 56% in national league

•There has been a police presence at 46% of games in 2019-20, across the Premier League, EFL and National League, compared to  66% of games this season.

Source: UK’s Football Policing Unit

Since Christmas, there have been a number of incidents in which missiles have been thrown onto the pitch and struck players, with victims including Burnley’s Matt Lowton at Leeds, Chelsea’s Antonio Rudiger against Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa’s Matty Cash and Lucas Digne at Everton.

Other alarming events have seen fans invade the pitch, racially abuse players, rip up seats, and throw fireworks onto the field of play. There have even been moments that come straight out of the 1980s playbook.

Followers of Leicester City targeted a bar-restaurant in Nottingham earlier this month ahead of the FA Cup Fourth Round tie at the City Ground, sending shoppers running for cover.

The venue is a lunchtime favourite with families, who must have been as bemused as they were scared as the thugs hurled furniture at the windows.

Later, Forest’s 4-1 win was marred when a 19-year-old Leicester City supporter invaded the pitch after the Reds had scored and threw punches at the celebrating players. He has been charged with assault.

Clearly, the reports and the statistics show there is a problem, but the football authorities point out that the number of offences remains small compared to the level of attendance, and they insist most people continue to have a positive experience.

Crowds total 33 million at Premier League and EFL matches in non-Covid years, while there have been 802 football related arrests, this season. It works out at one arrest per 21,000 attendees in the first half of the campaign.

Pearson insists that football is not reliving the eighties and nineties and the police have the powers and know-how to tackle the new generation of problematic supporters – it will just take time.

Professor Geoff Pearson, an expert in law and football, says police are well placed to deal with increases in fan disorder seen this season, despite rising concern over the number of arrests

Professor Geoff Pearson, an expert in law and football, says police are well placed to deal with increases in fan disorder seen this season, despite rising concern over the number of arrests

In past decades, mobs of away fans descended on towns to strut, and ruck with locals, and in the decades that followed, the yobbery continued abroad, where police were then less adept at dealing with the ‘English Disease’.

RETIRED GENERALS IN THE FAMILY STANDS

Many ‘generals’ of the old hooligan firms are still attending football matches, but they are now safely seated in the family stands.

‘They’ve retired,’ one long standing England supporter and home-and-away devotee of his club told Sportsmail .

‘I still see them. They are still at matches. They have just stepped back from that sort of thing. They have jobs and families.’

While an upsurge in incidents at football has inevitably sparked comparisons with the 1980s and 90s, the scale of the disorder does not compare .

In those days, players were targeted with unrelenting racist abuse from hundreds or thousands of fans in the stadium and bananas were thrown at black team members, like John Barnes of Liverpool.

All manner of missiles rained down, with the ex-Liverpool goalkeeper, Bruce Grobbelaar, once claiming he had been on the receiving end of sharpened coins, billiard balls, potatoes with razor blades and a dart hurled from behind his goal.

The threat was palpable for fans, too, even though it didn’t crystalise into violence every week.

For the most part the members of hooligan firms were decked out in their best clobber and paraded on another firms’ manor with the exciting prospect of a confrontation.

But when it did kick off, it was sickening and dangerous. The Heysel Stadium disaster, in which 39 people lost their lives after Liverpool fans charged at Juventus supporters and a wall collapsed before the 1985 European Cup Final, being the most devastating and tragic example.

The risk of violence cast a shadow over the sport. But that fear has been largely  removed through the hard work of clubs, stewards and police officers. Now, most of us don’t think twice about taking the kids.

Hooliganism spun around well-established networks, and the participants’ identity was synonymous with their club and ludicrously named firms.

Membership of Everton’s County Road Cutters, the Leeds Service Crew, the Millwall Bushwackers, Chelsea Headhunters, or Queen’s Park Rangers’ Bushbabies among many more, was worn as a badge of honour.

For the organisers of the mayhem, it was akin to a part-time job. It took weeks to arrange travel and meeting points for scores, if not hundreds of young men, to be in the same place at the same time on the other side of the country.

‘The firms are not really a thing [now]…,’ said Pearson. ‘These are not organised groups in the way the media used to portray them in the eighties of generals and foot soldiers,’ said the expert in football violence and policing.

Pearson accepts that an old firm member may be tempted back into action for a long-standing rivalry or big fixture that has not been played for some years, like Forest-Derby, but it is not the norm and it does not explain what is going on.

‘If you were a fighter back in the day and you have had a football banning order in the past then you know how difficult it is to get away with this type of activity.

‘So, there is a deterrent effect… for those that know the score.’

With some exceptions, the issue currently facing club football is one of antisocial behaviour, not hardcore violence, says Pearson.

‘It does seem to be low level antisocial behaviour that has increased the most,’ said the academic.

‘Much more throwing of usually harmless missiles, mostly harmless pitch invasions, people running on to get the shirt of their favourite player.’ 

The idea that the problem now faced involves new, young fans with different attitudes and habits to the previous generation appears to be supported by the experience of police officers, supporters and events on the ground. 

When Grimsby Town visited Notts County earlier this month, the Mariners brought a travelling support of 2,500 for the National League fixture.

Some supporters started early on the alcohol and soiled the train from the east coast so badly it had to be taken out of service. Police used sniffer dogs at the station exits. They recovered eight discarded plastic drug bags, one of which contained white powder.

They also picked up nine fireworks, which were destined for Meadow Lane.

The Times, which was invited to observe the management of the fixture by the Football Policing Unit, reported that many fans were teenagers.

Liverpool's John Barnes was targeted by racists who threw bananas at him, including in this FA Cup Fifth Round tie at Goodison Park in February, 1988. Liverpool beat Everton 1-0

Liverpool’s John Barnes was targeted by racists who threw bananas at him, including in this FA Cup Fifth Round tie at Goodison Park in February, 1988. Liverpool beat Everton 1-0

The following day, when Leicester brought 4,000 fans to Nottingham, the police also identified a large number of aggressive youngsters.

‘Already at 15 or 16 they are taking up a lot of our time. But five or ten years from now they are going to be a real problem,’ Inspector Craig Barry told The Times.

Leicester City fans discussed the events in Nottingham in an online a fan forum. Anecdotally, there was more support for Pearson’s viewpoint. They described lots of new young faces – home and away – snorting cocaine in their seats and calling everyone a c*** regardless of how many families are sitting nearby.

‘Not been to as many away games since Covid, but where have they all come from?! So many t**** I had never seen before,’ said one member on Foxes Talk.

The Heysel Stadium disaster saw Liverpool fans charge at Juventus supporters, a wall collapsed and 39 people were killed in the crush before the 1985 European Cup Final

The Heysel Stadium disaster saw Liverpool fans charge at Juventus supporters, a wall collapsed and 39 people were killed in the crush before the 1985 European Cup Final

‘Lad next to me… who barely looked old enough for a pint had some coke in the stand a couple of times next to me,’ said another fan. ‘Brought it in one of those sugar sachets.

‘More cokeheads at home games than I’ve ever seen before, added another.

Chief Constable Mark Roberts will lead the police response to crowd trouble at matches

Chief Constable Mark Roberts will lead the police response to crowd trouble at matches

The issue of cocaine looms large in the football disorder debate. After 2,000 yobs stormed Wembley ahead of the Euro 2020 final, Baroness Casey used her review of the incident to blame ‘ticketless, drunken and drugged-up thugs’, who took advantage of poor event planning.

The prevalence of cocaine has been linked with the increase in disorder this season by the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s football policing lead, Chief Constable Mark Roberts.

He would like the possession of cocaine to be added to the trigger offences included in football banning orders, which can be used by the courts to exclude fans from future matches to prevent violence or disorder.

Academics debate whether there is any evidence linking drug use to poor behaviour at matches and the Football Supporters’ Association has accused Roberts of ‘banging the drum of moral panic’ when it comes to the issue, in order to gain more funding. A claim Roberts refutes.

What is clear is that the post-lockdown world poses new challenges, but football is already well positioned to deal with them, says Pearson. 

The issue of fans coming onto the pitch is not new, in 1997 a Newcastle tried to confront Manchester United striker Andy Cole after he scored the winning goal in a 1-0 win

The issue of fans coming onto the pitch is not new, in 1997 a Newcastle tried to confront Manchester United striker Andy Cole after he scored the winning goal in a 1-0 win

The Premier League and EFL have responded quickly. They are collecting information from every club, to identify new trends and behaviours, which is expected to underpin a campaign.

The police, too, are zeroing in on the troublemakers. Some 1,400 people are already excluded from football grounds through the use of banning orders. Whether or not those orders are modified to include cocaine, possession of a Class A drug is fairly simple offence to prove and prosecute.

Meanwhile, the police are tailoring their approach by expanding the use of specially-trained dogs at matches to sniff out those fans carrying cocaine. The focus will be on visiting supporters, with searches now planned across the country for the remainder of the season in the top five tiers of the game. 

England has a long history of fan violence and even when it became less prevalent in the domestic game hooliganism remained a problem when the national team went abroad. Violence (pictured) erupted in Marseille at the 1998 World Cup when England played Tunisia

England has a long history of fan violence and even when it became less prevalent in the domestic game hooliganism remained a problem when the national team went abroad. Violence (pictured) erupted in Marseille at the 1998 World Cup when England played Tunisia

‘The solution is already here,’ says Pearson. ‘Football policing has been improving over the years and it is currently taking a big step forward.

‘Operations now have to be much more focused on dialogue and current intelligence rather than previous history. All of these are positive steps.

‘This will settle down again if these improvements in football policing are rolled out and are followed.’

However, the police do need time to catch up. Over the years, football operations officers have built profiles on hooligans that help them manage high-risk games more effectively. With new people on the scene those profiles have to be updated.

‘Once we have re-established those relationships between problematic fan groups and football policing officers and got intelligence and information pictures back to what they were before the pandemic, football policing will be in a good position,’ said Pearson.

Police categorise football fixtures directing more resources if there is risk of disorder

Police categorise football fixtures directing more resources if there is risk of disorder

In 1971, police had to restore order when Leeds United fans ran onto the pitch to tackle referee Ray Tinkler after he allowed West Bromwich Albion's second goal to stand in a 2-1 win for the Baggies. The goal ultimately resulted in Leeds missing out on the League Championship

In 1971, police had to restore order when Leeds United fans ran onto the pitch to tackle referee Ray Tinkler after he allowed West Bromwich Albion’s second goal to stand in a 2-1 win for the Baggies. The goal ultimately resulted in Leeds missing out on the League Championship

‘Police forces will be able to manage these situations, lay down tolerance limits for problematic fans or will be able to ban fans and things will start to settle down again.’

Officers often visit wannabe hooligans, sometimes multiple times to nudge them back into line, before they throw the book at them. 

In the end, it is anticipated the newbies and ‘day trippers’ will see that at football it is hard to hide and the number of offences should fall.

CCTV, dedicated police officers and banning orders helped to see off the last generation of hooligans and it should put this lot off, too.

‘These days, the young lads involved in the scene… face almost impossible obstacles with high-profile policing, and the end result will usually be a prison sentence, such is the authority’s importance on preventing the ‘bad old days’ returning,’ said former football hooligan, now author, Andy Nicholls in an opinion piece for the Bleacher Report in 2015. 

It rang true then and it does now, despite the increase in offences this season.

‘I say to the young lads at it today,’ he added. ‘Be careful; give it up. It’s just not worth the grief in this day and age. Is almost certain jail worth it? For five minutes of madness—as that is all you get now? Hand on heart, I’d say it’s not.’

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