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“Brandishing supporters as troublesome” – A look at the Burnley-Blackburn bubble match farce

This is a story from the FSF archive – the FSF and Supporters Direct merged to become the FSA in 2019 – so this page may contain hyperlinks that do not work and/or have missing files. Our archived pages are not maintained and will not be updated.

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We oppose rules and police tactics which discriminate against fans and “bubble matches” certainly fall into that category. Jimmy Law tells us more about his bubble match experience as a Burnley fan travelling to Blackburn away… 

Saturday 24th October. 08.05am and the queue at the bar in Burnley’s Weatherspoons Pub must be five or six men deep. The fixture is scheduled for a 12.30pm kick off, with the Police not wanting fans too inebriated.

As a result, spectators have taken to drinking almost four and a half hours prior to kick off. They do have to kill some time before catching their busses after all. Would supporters usually start drinking at 10.30am for a regular Saturday 3pm fixture? Or am I simply getting lost in the irony and false logic?

Before too long, even before my grease-laden full English breakfast has surfaced, two of Lancashire’s finest constabulary officers stroll in with complete and utter gay abandon. Oh,  and they’re accompanied with a camera.

There we all where, forgetting that ‘bubble matches’ were designed to keep us safe, nothing to do with brandishing supporters as troublesome. Call me a cynic, but I personally don’t believe that the photographs were taken to highlight how safe we all looked and how protected we all felt.

At 11.00am, Coach 3 was set to depart Turf Moor. Before reaching the departure lounge, bags were checked and passports were scanned – not literally – though we were all treated to the standard ‘pat down’ from those troopers at Rock Steady/G4S.

My pal had a holdall with our flags inside, which off course needed emptying and evidencing; after all, it could have been any sort of life endangering explosive device. Honestly, I cannot begin to describe how much authority had managed to gather onto one car park. It was like a swarm of high visibility jackets embracing the moment under the flashing back drop of light blue disco lights that adorned their vehicles.

Bubble match travel always remind me of the film Con Air. Nicholas Cage didn’t want to be on that plane, I didn’t want to be on this bus.

Here I sat, on a decrepit old stagecoach for which I’d paid a premium, (£41 a match day ticket plus compulsory travel) with two old blokes in front of me, a family comprising mum, dad and two kids to my left and behind me, a couple of likely lads in their mid-teens. One or two swear words followed, but nothing that warranted this level of police enforcement or ‘security’.

Only 48 Hours previously I had been walking the dog late at night. I live just on the edge of Manchester city centre and it was here that I saw two police cars come screaming down the road. First thought, there’s been another shooting in Salford. Next news another went by, then another. Then a helicopter came over. Then two black police cars. Then arrived the full-blown procession. It turned out to be the Chinese Prime Minister, Xi Jinping, who was meeting with delegates the following day in Manchester. How nice I though, of the British taxpayer, to treat myself and the other 4,700 Burnley fans to the same treatment on our visit to Blackburn.

Not surprisingly, we arrived early. There wasn’t much traffic on the motorway; the eleven miles were effectively closed off to other road-users, thus enabling the safe passage of the 4,700 Burnley supporters, or troublemakers, as the rhetoric goes.

Arriving at Ewood Park so early and stood under the concourse, what were fans expected to do for a full hour before kick off? I don’t think it takes Sherlock Holmes to work this one out; Watson got this one himself. Another flaw in the bubble match planning.

Low and behold, from our 11.00am departure we landed at Ewood Park at 11.30am. On arrival in Blackburn, abuse was hurled to-and-fro, but what would you expect?

Parading 4,700 enclosed supporters beyond enemy lines with clusters of high visibility jackets scornfully observing one’s every move.

The whole bubble arrival creates an unnecessary spectacle for home supporters too. I can’t imagine that Rovers’ fans flock to the train station every other Saturday to berate passing trains. Or stand on the hard shoulder of the M62 to give the wanker sign to the National Express bus headed to Leeds.

As Burnley won the game, for me it was a brilliant day. Getting caught up in the match day and the victory and the whole occasion you can get carried away.

Only looking back retrospectively do I realise what a shambles ‘bubble matches’ really are and how terrible the transport arrangements really are.

I don’t like Blackburn, I never ever will do, but after spending the afternoon in Burnley drinking with pals I ended up in Accrington (home to Stanley, where no Liverpool youngsters ever want to end up playing, which is located smack bang between Burnley and Blackburn). I was out with mates that I grew up with, half Burnley and half Rovers fans. We shared a few pints and gave each other stick, with Burnley obviously coming out on top. No trouble. No police officers. No bubbles.

Beyond my crude comparison of bubble matches being like Con Air for football supporters, a more accurate description would be to liken the arrangement of bubble matches to the ‘Cycle of Oppression’.

Simply put, as football supporters, society and the authorities stereotype us; this can lead to prejudice and unfair treatment (like being forced to get on a bus because you, as a football supporter, are a risk to society). This invariably leads to discrimination, bear a thought for the way rugby supporters are perceived and treated in comparison to football supporters. Compare a drunken student on a night out, to a drunken football fan wearing a Stone Island jacket.

By restricting our rights and control, which as we are all ware of is firmly held by the Police and the local authorities, the systemic subjugation of football supporters is inevitable.

They can, and they will, continue to treat us however they like. It is such a shame that the oldest derby in British football, dating back to 1882, cannot be considered a spectacle rather than an obstacle by the authorities. That said, bubble matches appear here to stay; Police reports will indicate they are a glowing success, try participating in one as opposed to officiating one.

I shall part with a quote from Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees, “all bubbles have a way of bursting or being deflated in the end”. Let’s hope it is applicable to farce that is bubble matches.

The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed are those of the author and they don’t necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn’t be attributed to the FSF.

Thanks to Ronnie MacDonald for the image used in this blog. Reproduced here under CC licence.

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