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Football – the good and the bad…

This is a story from the FSF archive – the FSF and SD merged to become the FSA in 2019.

Reading fan and FSF Secretary Jon Keen moved one ground closer to his aim of completing the “The 92”, with a trip to Shrewsbury Town v Newport County. His experience at Greenhous Meadow was an eye-opener, with both the good and the bad of the football “experience” on show (you can read West Mercia’s response here)…

On Saturday I saw both sides of how supporters are welcomed to matches – both impressive responsiveness to supporter feedback, but also old-style attitudes that suggest some mindsets are still planted firmly in the 1980s.

First the good points and the praise. Despite the dire nil-nil draw and the inability of either team to conjure up any quality in front of goal it was, overall, an enjoyable experience. The stadium isn’t as faceless as some of the newer bowls, the locals were friendly and talkative, and the atmosphere was pretty good for a crowd of its size. 

There had been a minor problem with the way the queues at the ticket office worked, and on Monday morning I emailed Shrewsbury Town to suggest a solution to that.  Less than half an hour later, I received a positive and helpful reply from Matt Williams, the Shrews’ Chief Executive. Now that’s real customer service and responsiveness and worthy of praise – if only more football clubs were so responsive to customers and communicated so well with them!

Policing

But sadly my overriding memory from this game will be the way it was policed.  I can’t remember when I saw quite so many police gathered for a match, with an attitude quite so hostile and unwelcoming.  It really was quite striking just how many police were deployed – literally in every direction you looked there were more and more groups of police. 

On the way to the game I’d expected to see one or two police – after all, this was a League Two match with a likely attendance of around 5,000.  But what I saw was the complete opposite, and I was astounded at the scale of the police presence – far more visible and confrontational than I’ve seen at many Championship or Premier League matches.  

As an example of the extreme numbers there, deployed close to one roundabout after the match I counted 32 police, eight of whom were restraining one supporter, presumably arrested, who was prone on the ground – just in case eight weren’t enough, a police dog was excitedly assisting.

That was just a small part of the police operation, which was even more numerous closer to the ground. But it wasn’t just the numbers involved that left a nasty taste in the mouth – it was the attitude and general hostility of the police that made me think we were back in the 80s.

This wasn’t an exercise in co-operative, community policing – this was an aggressive show of force and hostility, clearly intended to intimidate.  There was even an old, tatty bus that was being used by the police to ferry away fans to and from the station – by the looks of it whether they wanted to go there or not!  This was escorted by two police motorbikes and a transit van full of police.  

Just to sum up the whole attitude in one single incident, after the game an old bloke walking near me, a Shrewsbury supporter in his 70s, jovially remarked to one of these officers, “Boy, there’s a lot of you today, aren’t there?”

The only response he received was a curt, “Just f*ck off home”…

I clearly don’t have any intelligence about the risk factors around this match, but I’d be amazed if there was any level of risk that would justify the truly astounding numbers of police involved, or their attitude and hostility.  The operation is even harder to believe when you consider that the Home Office’s football arrest statistics, released last week, show that last season there were just four Shrewsbury Town supporters arrested at home matches, and just nine Newport County fans at away matches.

I wonder what the financial impact is to Shrewsbury Town of having to fund so many police deployed on their premises?  Similarly, I wonder if the Council Tax payers of Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire are aware of just how their police are being deployed – or the impression that visitors to the area are given by the hostile attitude they bring to football policing.

Because the memory I take away from my afternoon’s entertainment isn’t anything to do with football – sadly it’s to do with the attitude of the officers of West Mercia Constabulary, just how unwelcoming, unsophisticated and Neanderthal they were, and how unpleasant it is to be regarded as a potential criminal just because I attend a football match.

So, West Mercia Constabulary, please take note that it’s not 1980s any more – football supporters and society have all moved on – but you don’t seem to have done the same.

FSF Comment – we gave West Mercia Police the chance to respond to Jon’s concerns. Below, Chief Inspector Mel Crowther explains the reasons behind the policing operation and promises steps to identify the officer who told the supporter to “f*ck off”…

The Football Supporters’ Federation kindly offered the opportunity to respond as the policing commander for the Shrewsbury Town v Newport County game on Saturday 20th September 2014. I would wish to put forward my thoughts and rationale in respect of a number of points raised.

West Mercia Police’s priority was to ensure supporters of both sides were able to enjoy the match, whist ensuring members of the public, unconnected to the football, were able to go about their business safely and without disturbance. I believe we achieved this on the day.

There is a great deal of thought which goes into identifying whether any event requires policing. My team and I prepared for the fixture in advance, including: liaising with the Club; taking into account relevant information / intelligence; alongside consideration of incidents which had occurred at previous fixtures.

This early planning phase subsequently informed the resourcing level for the game. It is not an exact science; however I am confident that the assessment of staff numbers required was based on objective grounds. I have since reflected on the feedback provided as to whether, with the benefit of hindsight, fewer staff could have been deployed. I believe based on the information to hand the policing operation and level of staffing was in fact proportionate on this occasion.

I wish to reassure fans that the style of policing is always at the forefront of a commander’s considerations. This fixture was no different. The presumption for the policing operation was that the overwhelming majority of football fans wish to support their team in a law abiding, peaceful and celebratory manner.

All staff engaged in this operation were briefed that they must present themselves in a professional manner. The overriding tone I set was that officers were encouraged to positively and proactively engage in conversation with members of the public, including fans. My expectation, which was also communicated to staff, was that should officers encounter an individual / group intent on causing trouble they would be dealt with in a professional and robust manner. This was to ensure this behaviour did not unduly impact upon what I wished to be a peaceful sporting event.

I further defined ‘robust’ to ensure there was complete clarity with officers. Specifically: individuals who are intent on causing trouble should be confronted and dealt with swiftly and firmly to prevent any escalation of violence, using such force as is reasonable in the circumstances. I expected positive action to be taken and arrests made where lawful, necessary and proportionate.

I oversaw the operation on 20th September and believe our officers behaved in a friendly and professional manner. This is based on my observations throughout the day. I am very disappointed to hear of the way in which an officer conducted himself at the end of the match. I wish to be clear – this is not acceptable behaviour nor in keeping with the high levels of professionalism West Mercia sets. I am taking active steps to identify the officer concerned.

In terms of the bus, it was my decision to ensure we worked with the Newport fans to ensure they were able to make the first available train home. I arranged for the safe transportation through Shrewsbury to the train station to facilitate this. Conscious not all fans could make the first journey, I instructed staff to ensure we were able to make a second run. This was achieved “in the nick of time” just before the train departed. There were real benefits to this approach, in particular endeavouring to get all the supporters home as quickly and safely as possible. Additionally I was able to stand down the policing operation at the earliest opportunity, with minimal ongoing disruption to the communities within Shrewsbury.

The day passed peacefully without any major incidents of disorder, with only three arrests were made during the day of the match.

There are a small number of learning points which focus on mechanisms to identify unacceptable behaviour by a minority of staff and considering the public perception of a police activity, in support of achieving a what was a well intentioned aim i.e. transporting fans on the bus. I will ensure this is fed into the next match commander at Shrewsbury so that, where appropriate, positive steps are taken to address this learning.

I would like to thank both Shrewsbury Town and Newport County for their support before, during and after the game. The fans themselves behaved extremely sensibly and were a credit to their club.

Mel Crowther – Chief Inspector

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.

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