Case Studies

Dawn of new era of football hooliganism

by Mark Rowe

We are seeing the beginning of a new era of football hooliganism – and it’s not all football’s fault, writes Mark Rowe. There are in fact three sorts of trouble, posing risks to safety and of disorder. What they have in common is that British law enforcement, which has sadly become dysfunctional, is unable to apply any deterrent effect, leaving the hooligans free to carry on and encouraging the like-minded and weak-minded to become copycats; as in the first modern era of football hooliganism, that began in the later 1960s.

The three sorts of trouble evident since the lifting of covid bans on spectating at grounds are the throwing of fireworks (‘pyros’, short for pyrotechnics, in the jargon of football safety officers) inside grounds; fighting and throwing of missiles between home and away fans – and throwing of objects by fans at each other, and stewards; and attempts to gate-crash into grounds without paying. All three pre-date covid. Indeed, to try to get into a big match without paying is only human nature for scallywags; presumably some youths in ancient Rome tried to enter the Colosseum without paying.

A Uefa stadium and security webinar in February has detailed all three, suggesting that we are seeing some ‘first time back’ behaviour. The throwing of pyrotechnics and fighting can be explained away as the acting out of frustration from lockdowns, and perceived attacks on ‘fan culture’. Any problems inside football stadia, on that analysis, are caused by wider society; football, in that sense, is an innocent victim.

We can now see however how the large-scale disorder outside Wembley at the Euros final in July set a baleful precedent. Contrast the lack of arrests – perhaps one in 100 of the offenders on the day – and of any law enforcement follow-up afterwards, with the widespread justice against looters and rioters in English towns in August 2011, based largely, as any football stadium-related court cases must be, on video evidence. The lesson after the final, for all the drunkenness, drug-taking and danger of crushing by the irresponsible, was that actions had no bad consequences.

Consider the police response to disorder inside Turf Moor, the home of Burnley FC, at the Premier League game against Arsenal in September. In January, Lancashire Police were still appealing for idents of suspected Arsenal fans involved in the disorder. Even if police do eventually make identifications, given the backlog in criminal courts, whereby cases are routinely waiting a year or more to come to court, any outcome is unlikely before 2023. Even if there is a punishment, justice has become so delayed that any deterrent effect, on the fans who did the disorder and any other, has been lost.

In that case and above all Wembley, the moral for the hooligan is that there is strength in numbers. For contrast how the authorities do act promptly and severely against isolated cases of hate crime, as at National League (fifth tier) Notts County after a fan shouted racial abuse at a visiting Barnet player. As Notts County said afterwards, such hate crime is rare at the ground, and it does advertise ways of reporting such incidents. The system worked; fans – who nearly all don’t want any hooliganism, and are only there to see the football – reported the offender, who was passed to stewards and to the police who made an arrest.

While not wanting to rank hate crime with any other sort of crime – they are all crimes – surely for the good of the community, it would be better to have the more serious, life-threatening, crimes resolved that well – the malicious throwing of heavy objects, the Wembley Euros final gate-crashing that was fortunate not to cause casualties, as Baroness Casey’s review for the Football Association concluded in December.

Instead, we seem fated to have a repeat of the later 1960s, when a young generation with money in their pocket and time on their hands latched onto football to give them an enjoyable riotous Saturday out, whether damaging trains, or fighting fans whether encountered outside the stadium or on the terraces. Police proved woefully unable to catch many, or any; giving the hooligans licence to carry on; until all-seater stadia after Hillsborough.

Stadiums meanwhile have become far better equipped to provide the authorities with all that’s needed to prosecute offenders; video surveillance that can capture faces. The top divisions routinely require a spectator to give their name and address for a ticket, thus matching a seat-holder to a seat. While a hooligan does not obligingly stay in his seat to bait away fans and throw cigarette lighters or water bottles, that does make the task of identifying an offender far easier than it was to identify rioters in August 2011, who could after all have come from any part of a town. To return to that Burnley-Arsenal game, and others this season with disorder – in the Europa League, as featured in the Uefa webinar, Leicester-Napoli and West Ham-Rapid Vienna, to name only the British examples – the number of possible names to match to CCTV stills is at least narrowed down.

Note also that these fans are not short of a bob or two, if they can afford international midweek flights, besides stadium tickets; and as the Uefa webinar made plain, pyros and fighting by ‘ultras’ is a Europe-wide affair.

In the UK the 2010s austerity has not only reduced police numbers to a minimum and taken away spare capacity, which leaves police badly positioned to respond to large events, however routine, such as football fixtures. Also gone is the institutional memory and investigative ability, that the ‘uplift’ of 20,000 police by the Government does not address; and in any case the 20,000 only returns numbers to about pre-austerity levels, and makes little difference spread over the country and over shift patterns.

The inability of police to get on top of football hooliganism is of a piece with its even more lamentable inability to get to grips with higher volume crime such as rape and fraud. Those in authority – as commenting about that Burnley-Arsenal game – routinely describe wrongs as ‘unacceptable’. This is incorrect and sends another bad message; because it evidently is in fact acceptable, while the perpetrators are still at large.

Another difference from the 1960s is that football is far more commercial and televised. Pyros in particular – or rather their smoke – can delay or halt matches. That becomes a problem for broadcasters, the paymasters of the game, if matches over-run and TV schedules are disrupted. There the responsibility does lie with football’s stadia. It is for clubs to search spectators at the turnstile. Clubs did more searches after the Stade de Paris terror attack of November 2015 alongside the Bataclan massacre. If fans are able to smuggle fireworks into the ground, what else can be?

Picture by Mark Rowe; Plymouth FC fans’ sticker left on Chelsea FC anti-ram bollard outside Stamford Bridge after the Chelsea-Plymouth FA Cup tie.

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