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Case Studies

Welcome back to football

After covid lockdowns, big-league football is back to normal with fans able to cheer on their teams in stadiums again … with all the security problems that brings, writes Mark Rowe.

The scenes were not sponsor-friendly, but they are depressingly common. It was after 9.30pm on a September Friday night and Newcastle had just drawn 1-1 with the visitors, fellow Premier League strugglers Leeds. Some of the two sets of fans were in the grey, windowless, functional bowels of the St James’ Park Stadium (picture by Mark Rowe; view from the Metro station, summer morning), and Northumbria Police in their body armour and lemon sleeveless jackets and stewards in their orange jackets were keeping the fans apart – as were, incongruously, four police horses.

Kept apart

The fans were chanting, swearing at and baiting one another and lobbing the occasional plastic bottle and pint of beer, at the opposition fans; although they were not too choosy about whether they hit the police and stewards instead. The proverbial thin blue line of police – albeit with as many match-day stewards – was keeping the rival fans apart. The disorder was at the same time a threat, and not. On the one hand, police and stewards were scrambling to do their work; police shouted ‘move on’ in vain efforts to get fans to leave the ground and disperse. Some police had drawn their batons and were holding them above their heads. Yet numbers of fans were filming the scene on their mobile phones – hardly the reaction of someone fearing an imminent outbreak of violence (one of the police was filming too, with a hand-held camera).

Rather, the taunting – such as, repeatedly chanting ‘scum’ and reminding Leeds fans that discredited BBC presenter and sex offender Sir Jimmy Savile was from Leeds – and punching the air was all part of the night’s entertainment. If either set of fans truly wanted a fight, they had the sheer weight of numbers to break through the cordon in the confined space in the stadium’s concourse. They did not.

In this sense, the long-debated safety pros and cons of whether all-seater stadia in England and Wales from Wembley and the Principality Stadium in Cardiff down ought to be allowed standing areas are off the point; the UK Government recently laid the ground for licensing bodies to allow some standing areas, from January.

When fans are facing the play, whether sitting or standing, they are under video surveillance and are thus relatively constrained in their behaviour, although the recent Burnley-Arsenal match for example did see disorder (read more on Lancashire Police website), of the scuffling and plastic bottle-throwing kind. Hence a staple part of stadium match-day security is to have a physical gap between home and away supporters.

Disorder is – as social media footage makes plain, and made plain during the Euro 2020 tournament matches at Wembley – more likely to happen beyond the ground, because less likely to be intercepted by uniformed police or security, whether in Leicester Square or some nondescript park or alley where fans get dropped off in taxis and rival fans clash on their way to or from a ground. Again as social media footage makes plain, where uniformed figures of authority are nowhere to be seen, quite often other fans de-escalate any confrontations.

As in other fields of crime and anti-social behaviour, among the issues arising are whether or how the authorities can do anything more to prevent hooliganism, rather than keeping a lid on it, week by week; and where the line can or should be drawn between football hooliganism being football-related, and not, a point a Football League safety officer raised in conversation with Professional Security magazine some 20 years ago; is violence football-related on the road to the ground, or in a pub, as part of a night or weekend out?

More on football stadium security since covid in the November 2021 print edition of Professional Security magazine.

Some background: see the Northumbria Police website for the court outcome of pre-covid football disorder by Newcastle followers at a Burnley FC match.


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