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Police fans on actions, not reputations

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

This article first appeared in civil-rights group Liberty’s newsletter – an organisation the Football Supporters’ Federation has worked with before in defending fans’ rights. Since the “bad old days” of the 1980s football has come a long way. Stadiums are no longer unsafe, dangerous places but fans are too frequently treated as if hooliganism was still rife. And that needs to change…

During 2010-11 the total number of arrests at football matches fell 9% from the previous year according to Home Office statistics. Only one in every 12,249 spectators found him or herself arrested at a match and there were no arrests at more than 70% of games. Not a single football-related arrest of England or Wales supporters overseas took place either.

Yet the stereotype of football fans as violent, racist, drunken hooligans persists. It’s a situation exacerbated by the more reactionary elements of the media who happily ignore these positive numbers but report the odd (totally unacceptable) individual case of hooliganism as though it was symptomatic of a widespread disease. It isn’t.

But the game’s supporters face a barrage of legal restrictions not applied to followers of any other sport, never mind the rest of society. As football fans we can be banned by the courts from attending games and required to surrender our passports via Football Banning Orders (FBO) without any criminal conviction. The FSF has sat in on these cases and the evidence threshold required is scarily low as many FBOs are given out on the balance of probabilities rather than beyond all reasonable doubt.

Combine this with many judges’ total lack of understanding of fans’ culture and it’s a dangerous cocktail. Here’s one simple example; football fans regularly travel to games without tickets. If you’re a regular you’ll know hundreds of your fellow fans and chances are you’ll get your hands on a ticket. This doesn’t mean you’re a hooligan, it means you’re resourceful. Judges don’t always understand this and it’s been cited by prosecution solicitors as one of the grounds for an FBO.

Speaking at the FSF’s annual conference in 2010 Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti compared FBOs to control orders. FBOs prevent citizens entering designated areas in cities and towns across the UK on football matchdays. With the Olympics and Euro 2012 coming up those on FBOs will have to surrender passports for seven weeks over the summer months. It’s an astonishing show of power by the police which generally receives unquestioning media coverage.

FBOs can be given out for fairly trivial, non-violent offences such as pitch encroachment or drinking in sight of the football pitch – the latter being a criminal offence at football only. There’s other legislation that applies to football fans and no other groups in society too.

Drink on organised transport, such as a supporters’ coach, on your way to a game and you’re liable to be prosecuted. “Kettling” has gone on at football for years except police refer to it as a “bubble” or “escort”. Sell a spare ticket to your mate at face value and you can be prosecuted as a tout. Does this happen at a Westlife concert? Not that we’re fans of their music, you understand…

Other legislation is applied (or, more correctly, misapplied) to football supporters as well. One recurring example is Section 27 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006. This power, intended to deal with problem drinkers in public or semi-public places (such as pubs), has been roundly abused by the police to round-up and “deport” peaceful football fans causing no trouble whatsoever.

In one case Stoke City fans enjoying a pint in a pub on the outskirts of Manchester were rounded up by police who told them they were to be required to leave Greater Manchester as they were likely to contribute to alcohol-related disorder. They were herded onto coaches and “deported” to Stoke, including one Potters supporter who actually lived in Manchester. The pub’s landlord said the fans had been no problem and that he’d even put sandwiches on for them if they came back!

Some of the fans involved approached the FSF; we teamed up with Liberty and received crucial financial support from Stoke City for legal action. As a result Greater Manchester Police agreed to review its guidance to officers on the use of Section 27. Oh, and the fans involved received almost £200,000 compensation between them.

The police have often relied on the fatalism and reluctant acquiescence of football supporters when using disproportionate tactics but the rules of the game are changing. Online forums give fans an outlet to express their anger when unjust police tactics are used. Groups like the FSF and Liberty can help channel that frustration into meaningful change and understanding between supporters and police.

Yes, those guilty of criminal acts should be charged and prosecuted – that’s not in dispute. But violence at football is incredibly rare and fans deserve to be treated on their actions rather than reputations.

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