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Case Studies

Wembley disorder online

To say that the mobile phone footage of ticketless fans trying to force their way into Wembley Stadium for the Euro 2020 tournament final, posted online, and viewed millions of times within days, is zoo-like is unfair to zoo animals, writes Mark Rowe.

A one minute clip on Twitter is taken from inside the Wembley perimeter, of about 20 stewards mainly in lemon bibs at an outer checkpoint. It was in the event security jargon a ‘soft ticket check’ that has become the norm at big events in recent years, arising from the 2015 terror attack on the Stade de France in Paris. A uniformed presence asks people to show proof of entry to the event; once shown, the ticket-holder is allowed to walk further, to present their ticket for scanning at the actual stadium ‘footprint’.

The clip showed enough of a crush of people to push over the temporary fencing (like that pictured) and some people fell to the floor. The sheer number of people overwhelmed the stewards and in the melee some dashed past the stewards, whether guiltily because they were ticketless, or with tickets but wanting to get away from the disorder. At least one steward and fans alike were left sprawling, and some belongings left behind in the confusion.

Another minute-long clip was taken facing the turnstile C10 from inside the stadium. It showed some older fans assaulting younger ones squeezing in from the packed C10 turnstile, presumably (to judge by the shouted remarks) angered that the older fans had paid for entry, and others had got in for nothing. In at least once case, the older fans – who were punching and kicking anyone that came within their range – helped stewards to eject someone.

What is there to take away from the footage of such melees?

First, that when anything happens – looting as in English towns in August 2011, protests – it’s filmed by someone and if it touches a chord, it gets watched as widely as any BBC news bulletin. Such film is more visceral and closer to the incident than a broadcast media crew is ever likely to be. It means that the authorities, whether the event organiser or police, cannot very well deny or downplay any incident; for the ‘digital truth’ is there for all to see.

Historically, melees suit the aim of ticketless fans seeking to gate-crash or tail-gate their way into a venue. In the crush, procedures break down and at least some can trespass. Recall the very first Wembley FA Cup final in 1923, when a policeman on a white horse famously pushed back the crowd – far more than could fit comfortably in the ground – so that enough of a playing area was clear for the game to go ahead. In other words, England, or Britain, has a football fan culture of behaviour to try to gain entry to big occasions without paying.

Something little remarked upon in the mainstream media condemning of the disorder was the danger to safety. The Met Police reported 19 officers were injured; the online clips showed stewards pushed to the floor, and fans at turnstiles and the ‘soft check’ fence line crushed and falling over, quite apart from hooligans kicking and punching.

Securing such a big occasion is not only difficult because of the large number of access points. It’s not much use if all the turnstiles except one keep out the unauthorised, any more than in a medieval castle all corners of the walls except one held besiegers at bay, if a breach let attackers in. Any site (physical or virtual) is only as secure as its weakest point, and no matter how misleading a clip on social media is of the overall event, that clip takes on its own reality.

Any security regime for such a high profile sporting and other cultural event not only has to battle against the irresponsible and drunken, but the official policy of presenting the tournament as a happy occasion of fan zones, fun and face painting, as will please the corporate sponsors (such as Heineken; please drink responsibly). This is not new. Ahead of the May 2008 UEFA final in Manchester, when one of the finalists was Glasgow Rangers, the civic authorities of Manchester sought to welcome visiting fans and provided a big screen in the city centre to accommodate the anticipated ticketless travelling fans.

Hours before the big screen went on the blink, those fans had turned wherever they were congregating into anarchy and widespread disorder ensued. A council report later concluded; how could anyone have possibly expected so many ticketless fans – maybe 150,000, far more than could or did fill the City of Manchester Stadium – to attend, and overwhelm local government, stewarding and policing services?! As a sign of how those in authority are loath to admit to anything going wrong, the city council’s executive the month after noted ‘the successful staging‘ of the final. In a similarly Pollyanna-ish comment, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan the day after said that ‘a small minority’ marred the occasion.

That the sheer numbers of offenders overwhelm those in uniform means that the metrics of that night in 2008, and Sunday night at Wembley, are best not taken seriously – namely the numbers arrested. A Met Police statement gave a total of 51 in London arrested to do with the final, 26 at Wembley, and 25 in central London (footage on social media showing anarchy in Leicester Square, much as when Scotland fans came for their group match against England at Wembley, the 0-0 draw on June 18). Manchester in 2008 had a similar total of arrests. The baleful result is in criminal justice terms that nearly all the drunks, gate-crashers and so on get away with it and are not deterred from doing it again.

Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner Jane Connors in the statement described how ‘ahead of the final, police commanders deployed one of the most significant and comprehensive policing plans the Met has ever committed to a football match of this scale’. That suggests that police could not find the spare capacity to make many arrests, given that each arrested person, even if compliant – unlikely on the night – would need at least one, more likely two, police officers. Police could therefore only make a finite number of arrests, making arrests a dubious metric for measuring how severe the disorder was.

The ultimate question for Wembley’s security regime, and any venue hosting a big-occasion game of football involving any British team, is that no matter how up to date the building and its security technology, it is still liable to being overwhelmed by people who turn up with a will to gate-crash.

See also the August 2021 print edition of Professional Security magazine.


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