Policing Football Fans: Civil Liberties Or Taking Liberties?

8 By SJMaskell  |   The Ball  |   November 6, 2011  |     25

‘Football fans have been exposed to the type of policing historically that is probably unfair and untargeted. I think it’s evolved, I think it’s moved on. My football unit police with the best interests of football fans that are around safety and that’s our principle driver. It’s not you and us at all. We want to work with you. I’m really happy to work with football fans on this.’ Supt. Rick Burrows, Silver Commander, Hampshire Police Football Unit.

In stark contrast to the Hampshire Commander’s rhetoric, recent reports of over-kill by West Yorkshire Police and heavy-handed stewarding by Leeds United belie the idea that policing of football fans has evolved.  Cardiff CityPortsmouth and Coventry City fans have made complaints about their treatment at Elland Road. Policing tactics may have changed  but 1980 attitudes are still to the fore. If you are an away fan in particular it is very much a case of ‘you and us’.

At the Football Supporters’ Federation ‘Watching Football Is Not A Crime’ meeting in Portsmouth on October 20, this issue was raised. Supt. Burrows admitted that there seems to be a degree of partisanship in both stewarding and policing of away fans. He observed that when you have officers lining up between two sets of fans, ‘if you don’t tell them what to do, they all face the away fans. I think it is because they are seen as this risk coming in.’

In the policing of football fans perception is all. Seeing away fans as a risk is the justification police and stewards give for the tactics they deploy in ‘managing’ them. Three key tactics are highly questionable. These are the tactics of ‘bubbling’ or the containment of away fans, overt filming by the police and the manner in which stewards try to enforce the ‘all-seater’ regulations. All of these contributed in some degree to the issues at Leeds recently.

Classification of the level of the risk of disorder depends on the history of the fixture and police ‘intelligence’. The Portsmouth v Southampton game on 18 December has been designated a ‘bubble’ match on this basis, using intelligence ranging back as far as 2004. For a bubble match away fans can only attend the game by travelling in a coach convoy, walking through a ‘sterile area’ into the ground, watching the match and then returning the same way – all the while escorted by police. (The FSF provide a more detailed description.)

Even in games not designated a ‘bubble’, elements of these controls are used, as they were on the coach-travelling Pompey fans at Leeds. To a lesser degree a hold back of fans and escorting fans to coaches and trains are similarly restrictive. Many report being forced onto public transport that takes them where they do not want to go – including Supt. Burrows.

Claims that ‘bubbling’ works are made on the basis that it both protects those in the bubble from the ‘obnoxious behaviour’ of those out to cause trouble and prevents ‘risk supporters’ from attending the game. It controls away fan attendance at the game as tickets for the match are only given out on the coaches. Cardiff fans’ coaches had to meet up at a motorway service station before the Leeds game and wait for their tickets to be delivered to them. In law the clubs and police can’t force fans to travel on coaches, but clubs can make it a condition of getting a ticket. So it doesn’t stop fans travelling to a game, just stops them getting in the away end. Cardiff have been ‘bubbling’ fans to certain games since 1998 and their chief of security, Alan Kerslake, claims, ‘It worked, it took out the disorder.’

Civil rights lawyer, Alex Gask, suggests that ‘bubbling’ is another word for ‘kettling’ as used on peaceful protesters. The law is very clear on the matter as was established by the Moos judgement. Moos holds that containing a peaceful demo to protect it from violent others is unlawful unless there is the likelihood of an imminent breach of the peace.  No breach of the peace is imminent for a ‘bubble’ as decisions are made well in advance of the game. Civil rights lawyers suggest the tactic is ripe for a challenge.

Police say that bubbling makes the best use of the limited resources at their command. This may be the crux of the matter as policing a local derby will stretch a force, but it makes you wonder how they will manage the prevention of trouble away from the bubble.

However, it needs to be clear that although the bubble is always police led, it is a tactic that is approved by the clubs themselves and is undertaken as a result of consultation between police and clubs. It is seen as a way of preserving the club’s image if fans travel trouble free. Ultimately few people really want to see disorder but there is no doubt that bubbling restricts people who are guilty of nothing more than wanting to go to a football match. Police and clubs will sell it to fans as a safety measure but it only works if fans are prepared to hand responsibility over to a police force that admits it cannot 100% guarantee their safety and travel in a way that clearly identifies them as visiting fans. Coaches caught in traffic (the Portsmouth game is on the last Sunday before Christmas at a ground set in the middle of an island city with three routes in) are particularly vulnerable.

There appears to be no specific ‘intelligence-led’ justification of risk needed before overtly filming football fans, however. Again, the deployment of this tactic is claimed to be a deterrent that works.  Film and photographic evidence once collected is ‘bagged and tagged’ – categorised after the match. Categorisation takes the form of either evidence of disorder that will be used in court or police intelligence that will be retained, anything else is binned. How the distinction between ‘intelligence’ and that which is binned is made is not clear. Given that it may be used to identify risk supporters there may be a wide brief in this respect.

At Leeds, Cardiff, Portsmouth and Coventry fans have reported the intimidating presence of police photographers filming the away fans. That this is a potential incitement to disorder is clear from reports on the Portsmouth game. Its use on an SOS Pompey demonstration in 2009 was ordered to be stopped by the officer in charge when it became clear that filming fans at a properly organised and sanctioned protest was provoking reactions that created the risk of disorder. Civil rights lawyers say that filming fans who are doing nothing wrong is disproportionate and it is illegal to retain the film. In their opinion having a camera in your face in those circumstances verges on criminal harassment.

Such police tactics have been challenged in the context of political demonstrations. The Moos judgement has made clear that they undermine the civil liberties of peaceful citizens. Yet they are still used on football fans. Consciously or not there seems to be a prevailing attitude that the reputation of football fans makes such treatment justifiable. The logic of claiming these tactics deter disorder when they are used on peaceful fans is breathtaking in its disingenuousness. This particular correlation is not evidence of causation. In fact, such a claim suggests that you are a risk purely by definition of being a football fan. The question has to be asked: do you therefore cease to be a citizen if you are a football fan?

Control of fans inside the ground is subject to FA regulations. Again, security officers will argue the case that their job is to ensure that everyone enjoys themselves in safety. The interpretation of the law in regard to all-seater stadia seems a little cloudy. Everyone attending has to have a seat. The matter of whether they should be seated at all times appears to be open to interpretation. There is a wide range of interpretations, even within the same ground at times, and this was the issue at both the Cardiff and Portsmouth games at Elland Road, where away fans standing were targeted by stewards but home fans stood unchallenged in the next section. The perception of away fans being a greater risk seems to have been in play here.

Cardiff City’s Alan Kerslake manages their stadium so that groups home fans who tend to stand are accommodated together in one section of the ground. This cuts down internecine squabbles between standers and sitters and allows the section to be stewarded appropriately. Fans are still asked to sit and Mr Kerslake maintains that his stewards are trying to keep them seated as required by FA regulations. Unallocated seating in away stands would allow this to occur naturally as fans would be able to organise themselves on these lines, as would the introduction of ‘safe standing.’

Security officers at Elland Road and Fratton Park appear to feel the rule of being seated should be more rigorously enforced. This was the chief bone of contention at Elland Road that led to the ejection of fans. Compared to the number of ejections in safety reports from Fratton Park, the 20 ejections of Cardiff fans at Elland Road seem excessive. Leeds United, in a statement, claimed that ejections were not for standing but for ‘abuse of stewards’ who were asking them to sit. Pompey stewards are possibly thicker skinned, or maybe more tactful in their approach, as they had less issues when a greater number of Cardiff fans visited Fratton, where police control tactics had also been lighter.

Police advice on enforcing sitting seems to support Mr Kerslake’s approach. They say that whilst they have every sympathy with stewards trying to enforce the FA regulations, if there is a tipping point where it is likely that disorder will occur then stewards have to stop trying to do so. Safety has to be practical. It would seem that measuring the tipping point is a skill which some stewards do not have. It helps not to have the attitude, once voiced by a steward at Barnsley to me, that away fans are animals.

Animals or not, the constant referral to ‘risk’ in regard to football fans – ‘risk supporters’, risk of disorder, safety risk – takes the focus off the human element of a crowd and redefines it as an entity, one that is capable of anti-social behaviour. Social psychologists suggest that, ‘Regarding crowds as anti-social entities acting without identity or reason can legitimate their violent repression by security forces, prevent intragroup helping in emergencies, and facilitate the dismissal of popular protest as irrational by those in positions of power.’ It is a self-fulfilling prophecy that if you treat people as an anti-social risk, they will become one.

It doesn’t help that fans themselves often buy-into this identity and either accept this treatment as inevitable or, especially when applied to other clubs’ fans, deserved. Pompey message board discussions of the events at Leeds v Cardiff evinced comments on the lines of, ‘Cardiff fans are vile scum,’ and ‘get them back to their sheep ********* country and stay there for the good of football all round, they deserve everything that comes to them.’ One message contained a useful seed of thought however, ‘Until they (Cardiff) sort their following out they will continue to be treated poorly.’ But the mythology is hard to break down when fans themselves buy into it.

Alan Kerslake claims that trouble has reduced when Cardiff travel away from home. However, he says, ‘Dialogue is essential … You must discuss it with the fans and you must seek their view and you must take on board what they want as well as what we want and the police. … The fans must buy into it … you must consider their feelings.’ This seems a step in the direction of seeing fans as citizens too. Police acknowledge it is only a minority that want to make trouble but seem content to police the peaceful majority rather than tackle the real problem.

If clubs are to truly ‘sort their following out’ they would be wise to seek the help of the peaceful majority rather than impose restrictions on them – no matter how much it is ‘for their own good.’ Proper fan consultation, something Leeds United, Portsmouth and Southampton are particularly poor at, would go a long way towards this ‘sort out.’  Including fans in the actual management of the crowd would perhaps help. They are citizens with rights as well as responsibilities and have the brains to act as such.

This in the clubs’ hands as they are the generators of the support that is perceived to need such policing. As football crowds dwindle across the leagues and prices rise disproportionately with inflation, many fans will no longer go to football to be treated this way. It is another alienating nail in football’s coffin. Time to treat fans like citizens, not ‘anti-social entities.’

Details of the Football Supporters Federation’s ‘Watching Football Is Not a Crime’ Campaign can be found here.

You can follow SJ Maskell on Twitter by clicking here.

You can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter by clicking here.


  • November 6, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    Steve Higgins


    I was one of those fans at Leeds and submitted my thoughts on paper to you and FSF. I was unable to attend the meeting at the rifle club so was unable to speak. I was also going to ask why some official football coaches were allowed alcohol onboard on matchdays as witnessed on the way to Leeds with Cardiff coaches travelling to Barnsley. Is there a rule or not? Certainly coaches I have travelled on, stewarded and organised myself have not allowed alcohol unless travelling before or after matchdays. Your thoughts?


  • November 6, 2011 at 2:06 pm


    “although the bubble is always police led, it is a tactic that is approved by the clubs themselves”

    I’m not sure this as accurate as you suggest. Football clubs frequently approve restrictions on supporters because the policing authorities give them no choice. If the ultimatum from the police is that their restrictions are accepted or the match is not policed, and therefore does not go ahead, what choice do the clubs have?

    Not all clubs are innocent, but neither are they all guilty.

  • November 6, 2011 at 2:34 pm


    @ Steve, the issue of drinking on coaches was discussed at the 20 October meeting very briefly and no real conclusive answers were given. I would guess that you witnessed ‘illegal’ boozing as have other fans who raised the issue at the meeting. There was agreement that the rules needed some update I think.

    @Haywain You could well be right in that you describe what might actually happen in some cases. However, this assertion is based on a statement made at the 20 October meeting by Supt. Burrows of Hampshire Police and corroborated by Alan Kerslake of Cardiff City and Portsmouth FC’s Operations Manager.

    One thing that was apparent at that meeting is that there is a certain disparity in the way different police forces approach the policing of football fans.

  • November 6, 2011 at 5:19 pm


    The last time Southampton visited Portsmouth they were attacked on their way to the ground and encountered a 500-strong mob waiting for them at the end.

    Not until police had cleared the streets with baton charges, dogs and horses could Saints fans be safely escorted back to their coaches.

    Until and unless Portsmsouth control their hooligan following, decent supporters have a right and need to be protected.

  • November 6, 2011 at 6:33 pm


    Indeed James – that was in 2004. The attacks on the way to the ground were made by people NOT attending the match as they occurred after kick-off. So you have to ask how much it was a football problem.

    The boot was on the other foot in 2010 at the 1-4 cup tie at St Mary’s, wasn’t it? In fact it was those events, added to previous history, that triggered the ‘bubble’ status of the game coming up, I believe.

    I agree that clubs have a role to play in dealing with the hooligan element, but the irony of your reply only underlines the irony of the message board responses to the Leeds v Cardiff events I mention. Whilst we see ‘hooliganism’ as a problem of other clubs and buy into the myth that all football fans are a risk for anti-social behaviour then we allow policing to become ever more restrictive.

    This isn’t an argument about one lot of club’s fans against another club’s lot – no matter how deep seated the rivalry is. It is an argument about the policing of the MAJORITY of peaceful football fans of all clubs.

  • November 6, 2011 at 8:48 pm


    Great article. In a bigger picture we’re really discussing ‘collective responsibility’ here. The question that needs to be answered is whether collective responsibilty is fair in all walks of life – not just football. In my country, Poland, we have had an extreme example of authorities punishing all football supporters for the crimes of a few. After a cup final in May between Lech Poznan and Legia a few hundred idiots from LP’s fans section invaded the pitch in a violent manner and caused some minor riots and acts of vandalism. What followed was the order of next home league games of Lech and Legia to played with closed doors, a ban on ALL away fans in divisions 1-4 as well as taking extreme measures against such things like fans swearing (people get bans and huge fines for swearing) or standing in a walkway.

  • November 7, 2011 at 8:52 am

    Leon Tricker

    Great article.

    My current thinking is that a minority of fans do not help the majority by singing violent songs. The “it’s just a song” defence doesn’t wash with me, and it helps confirm the negative stereotype of a football fan.

    Re. tactics still being used against football fans when they’ve been challenged or banned in other contexts. I’d flip that round and suggest football fans get away with behaviour that wouldn’t be tolerated outside of a football ground.

    I’ll use an example that we’re both familiar with – the ‘Poor Little Scummer’ chant that our fellow Pompey fans are so keen on at the moment. If 5000 people started singing a song about taking a brick to someone, outside of a football ground, would that not be seen as incitement to cause violence or encouraging crime?

  • November 7, 2011 at 12:30 pm


    Interesting insight into a more targeted approach here:


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