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Case Studies

Chronicle of a riot foretold

Rangers are the only club in Britain who have this lunatic element follow them. They are not fans. We don’t want them. So said the chairman of the Glasgow football club, John Lawrence, on May 22, 1969, the day after some Rangers fans rioted outside and inside St James Park, at the semi-final of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, which Rangers lost.

Lawrence said, to finish the quote from the Guardian: “I am embarrassed and sickened by all of it.”

At the next most consequential match for Rangers in Europe, the final of the UEFA cup in Manchester in May 2008, versus Zenit St Petersburg, which Rangers lost 2-0, Rangers fans went on widespread riot in Manchester city centre.

It is not a certainty, then, for Rangers fans to riot in Seville for the final of that same Uefa cup competition, now called the Europa League, against Frankfurt on Wednesday evening; not as much of a certainty, as that the sun will rise on Thursday morning. But it would not be surprising.

A red herring was much aired in a Manchester City Council report after the 2008 disorder, even repeated in recent days; that the rioting was triggered by the failure of a big screen in Piccadilly Gardens. Once you dig into the detail of the report, let alone use your own logic, such an excuse was convenient for the authorities.

As the report did say, the fault was not in the big screen but the signal; and network operator Vodafone were ‘unable to account for the failure of the signal to the screen’. An overload of mobile networks (in the early years of such things) meant as on 7-7 after the 2005 terror attacks in London, an inability to communicate and respond. In any case the screen operators Lightmedia said they could have rectified the signal at 7.30pm, only the man in charge who was present for the whole of this operation believed staff ‘were in serious danger and instructed his staff to abandon the screen and run’, due to violence from drunken fans.

The unwarranted but persistent belief was that one screen failure caused the rioting – and if only one technical difficulty had not happened, all would have been well. In truth, other big screens were around; and as video footage from the day showed, fans were out of control for hours before.

Fans with tickets at the venue, the Manchester City ground, were not a problem; rather, the disorder was by many, many thousands of ticketless fans who came to Manchester and drank. In Newcastle in 1969 as in Manchester in 2008, shop windows were smashed, pubs and anywhere that sold drink reported trouble. Numbers of arrests are the wrong metric as there were far more incidents than police could respond to; and the day after Manchester, the authorities and the railway operators were only too glad to pack the fans onto trains north (presumably with valid tickets?!). As has happened for decades with football hooliganism, that barely any fans get arrested and punished means there is no deterrent.

None of this is to stigmatise Rangers fans, Scots, or football fans in general. Last season, when Rangers won the Scottish League after years in the doldrums, despite covid restrictions, thousands celebrated outside Ibrox. Was it because they are bad people? No, because their club is important to them. Likewise only the other day when Celtic won the League title, fans gathered outside Celtic Park.

Before and after covid, groups of young men carrying boxes or supermarket plastic bags of lager have been a common sight on English trains and railway platforms on Saturday mornings; in the evenings, hopelessly or aggressively drunk, they make the return journey. In between, they attend some football. British Transport Police (BTP) and police in general are sick of them. Even if only a minority of fans are misbehaving, when tens of thousands follow their club to a big European game, that minority will amount to considerable numbers.

The Euros final at Wembley in July 2021 when thousands of England fans rioted outside the stadium as they sought, with much success, to enter without tickets, was only the latest example of a disturbing social trend; of many young men ready to cause, and enjoying, anarchy. Football is the excuse and the occasion; note how John Lawrence in 1969 and many other football figures distanced themselves from football hooliganism, which served to avoid responsibility and leaving response to the police and the wider state.

The Baroness Casey review commissioned by the Football Association into the Wembley ‘near miss’ – the crushing that could easily have led to injuries and deaths – set out how stewards and police were overwhelmed. It is hard to see how Wembley and police could have done better; indeed, arguably, having many hundreds more stewards and police officers, assuming they were available at short notice on a summer weekend, might have raised the risk of fatalities by having more bodies in a finite space.

What to do? The dilemma in Manchester in 2008 as in Seville this week is that the authorities, football’s and civic hosts, want to lay on a welcome for fans. Hence big screens. This suits broadcasters, who routinely have shown scenes of overjoyed people at such ‘fan zones’ when their team has scored. If you don’t put on such ‘zones’, with stewarding, fans may only mill around uncontrolled. But the more you put on for ticketless fans, the more you may attract them?

The Casey report set out the terrible decisions that those in charge of the Wembley security operation had to take; was the disorder serious enough to postpone the match? The painful to watch scenes of Denmark player Christian Eriksen’s collapse on the field during the Denmark-Finland Euros match – which the authorities ordered to a finish later that evening – was a sign of how ‘the show must go on’ despite human tragedy. For the sake of TV audiences and advertisers and the wider tournament.

The truly worrying fact for those securing the Seville game, like any big football game involving England after July 2021, is that the risk is out of control of those in authority; because it depends on if, and if so how many, young mainly male fans are ready to travel, and when there take alcohol (and, as the Casey report traced, illegal drugs). It depends on air charters.

Photo by Mark Rowe; Ibrox, the home of Glasgow Rangers FC.


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