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English Football Fans: Cans, Cops and Carnivals

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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Following on the back of last week’s blog from Charles Robinson on the history of the establishment’s distrust of football crowds comes this from fellow academic Dr Geoff Pearson, Senior Lecturer in Sports Management and Law at the University of Liverpool. His book, An Ethnography of English Football Fans: Cans, Cops and Carnivals, looks at the modern situation with regards to the treatment of football fans in the UK in the light of the laws and strategies brought in as a result of hooliganism in the 1970s and 80s, and asks whether it’s time these processes were reviewed. 

Match-going football fans have long been misunderstood. Since the late 1960s and the creation of the ‘football hooligan’ label, fans attending matches in Britain have regularly been demonised by the media, politicians and police. Instances of vandalism, disorder and occasional violence, even though they typically related only to a tiny minority of spectators were sensationalised in the media and football fandom received a special stigma. In the 1970s and 80s fans were contrasted unfavourably with more ‘civilised’ sports fans who attended cricket or rugby, or the supposedly trouble-free American sports and in 1985 the Sunday Times declared football to be “a slum gameplayed in slum stadiums watched by slum people”.

The media exaggeration of ‘hooliganism’ and the apparent lawlessness of football fans had a dramatic impact upon social policy. From the mid-1980s onwards, football matches became some of the most tightly regulated social spaces in the country. Drinking alcohol in sight of the pitch or on football ‘specials’, being drunk in stadia, encroaching onto the pitch, throwing harmless missiles, ‘indecent’ chanting and selling spare tickets (even at face value) all became criminal offences in football in contrast to other sports. Furthermore, following the Taylor Report football fans in the top two divisions were denied the opportunity to watch matches while standing up. Undercover police operations were launched against ‘hooligan firms’, a special branch of the National Criminal Intelligence Service was set up, and tactics of containment and surveillance became standard in the management of football crowds.

I started to evaluate the effectiveness of these laws and policing strategies in the mid-1990s, carrying out in-depth ethnographic observations and interviews with fans of Blackpool FC (1994-1998), the England national team (1998-2006) and Manchester United (2007-2011). The findings of this research are set out in An Ethnography of English Football Fans: Cans, Cops and Carnivals, which attempts to understand and explain the culture of regular ‘home-and-away’ match-going fans. The book argues that English football fans, who have long been considered to be an homogenous group, actually belong to many different sub-cultures, attending matches with different aims and objectives and ways of ‘supporting’ their team. It focuses in particular on the ‘carnival fan’ sub-culture, which it argues dominated the travelling support of the teams under observation (although ‘carnival fans’ remained a small minority among match-goers generally). The carnival fans travel to matches with the intention of creating a social space that is a transgression from everyday working life, centred on the gathering together in large groups, the creation of ‘atmosphere’  and expression of identity, and social alcohol consumption.

However these carnival fan groups create challenges for the police managing football matches. There were frequent incidents during the research when carnival fan groups wishing to do no more than have a few drinks and a sing-song were corralled by police, sometimes in riot gear, or escorted unnecessarily to the stadium. Carnival fan groups being mistaken for ‘risk supporters’ was especially common where these groups wore ‘casual’ clothing and gathered in the same pubs as those identified by Football Intelligence Officers as ‘risk’ (sometimes at the request of the local police force). The book argues that the police need to understand better the football fans they are managing, and that more meaningful engagement with fans will reduce disorder and help ensure that fans are treated fairly and proportionately. It also argues that it is time that some of the over-regulation in this area is revisited, arguing that current laws restricting alcohol and prohibiting standing are being counter-productive in terms of public order and the safety of spectators.

The authorities need to understand better these supporter groups and their intentions because they are not going away. In fact new technologies and social media if anything are entrenching these groups and their activities in modern football culture. Organisations like the Football Supporters’ Federation are starting to question whether current levels of regulation and policing are necessary and many police forces are starting to change the emphasis of their policing operations, from the prevention of public disorder to the facilitation of the legitimate expectations, and indeed human rights, of fans.

Special Offer: To purchase a copy of An Ethnography of English Football Fans: Cans, Cops and Carnivals with a special 25% discount for FSF readers, enter code ‘OTH471’ when ordering from this link (offer expires 31/12/2014) . 

Thanks to JPellgen for the image reproduced under CC license.

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