Like many local rivals, Blackburn Rovers and Burnley have more in common than either would care to admit, and the rivalry between the two clubs has the added bonus of rarity value. This weekend, they meet at Ewood Park in the Premier League. It’s the first time that they have met in the top flight since the 1965/66 season, and they have only managed a handful of matches against each other in any competition since the early 1980s. There is, therefore, cause for the Lancashire Constabulary to be concerned at the possibility of trouble arising with the two clubs meeting, but the police decision to designate this match a “bubble match” is putting the spotlight on a controversial policing method which, it could be argued, puts thousands of people to considerable inconvenience for no particularly good reason.
“Bubble matches” are becoming more and more commonplace. In short, they are matches for which travelling supporters can only get tickets if they travel on special transport laid on from specific pick-up points. Superficially, it seems like a reasonable plan which allows the police to monitor all travelling supporters with ease, but things aren’t quite as simple as that and it could be argued that bubble matches cause more problems than they solve. Penned into escorts and herded from A to B could certainly be argued to be a gross infringement of civil liberties and, from a practical perspective, it has been argued that such strong-arm tactics increase tensions and create an atmosphere of “us and them” between police & stewards and supporters when such an atmosphere need not exist.
Moreover, it puts a considerable number of people to enormous inconvenience. It is facile to assume that all Burnley supporters live in Burnley, and the assumption that they should all have to travel from designated pick-up points because they can’t be trusted to make an eleven mile journey without being monitored (and, no doubt, filmed) is a lazy and expedient one. Cases of Burnley supporters living in Blackburn that are having to travel back to Burnley in order to travel back to the town in which they now live only serve to highlight the absurdity of much of the travelling that will be commonplace in this particular corner of Lancashire on Sunday morning. In addition to this, travelling supporters have to pay £5 for the privilege of this monitoring and they have to convene at their pick-up points at 9.15 in the morning, arriving at Ewood Park approximately two hours before kick-off.
All of this might be considered worthwhile if it could be guaranteed that the match would pass off peaceably but, of course, this cannot be guaranteed. The 3,000 people that have bought tickets for the away end at Ewood Park will be Burnley season ticket holders. The club already hold all of their details, and these are the people that are the least likely to cause trouble at an away match. Unless the police are planning on closing the M65 – the road that links the two towns - and stopping rail services between them on Sunday morning, they can’t prevent people from travelling between the two towns and anybody that is likely to cause trouble would be unlikely to travel on officially designated transport or, it could be argued, be that bothered about even being inside Ewood Park come Sunday lunchtime when they have their pathetic little battles to fight elsewhere in any case.
In addition to this, genuine Burnley supporters that don’t want the hassle of being herded from Burnley to Blackburn like cattle may already have decided to not buy tickets in the Burnley end for the match and have bought them in the home areas of the stadium. If we are to assume that keeping the supporters apart inside the stadium is successful in keeping trouble to a minimum, creating a situation in which it may even be considered that there are benefits for away supporters buying tickets in the home end (and, considering how difficult Blackburn find it to fill Ewood Park on a Saturday afternoon, this has to be considered a possibility) seems to be counter-productive and counter-intuitive. The Blackburn website states that a “purchase history” is necessary to buy tickets for the home seats, but it seems unlikely that this would be impossible to circumvent. All of this, though, pales into insignificance alongside the fact that any serious trouble would be more likely than not to happen away from the stadium, where it is considerably more difficult for the police to keep an eye on groups of people.
It would be nice to think that the authorities (and by that we mean all of them – both clubs have been fairly complicit in this) might like to take a moment to consider the old truism that people are more likely to behave like animals if you treat them as such. This, however, seems likely to fall upon deaf ears and if there is any trouble on Sunday it will be unilaterally blamed on supporters with very few people stopping to consider that there were alternatives available to ferrying people from Burnley to Blackburn like battery chickens in an atmosphere that was only likely to increase hostility and tension on a day during which tensions may be running higher than normal anyway. It seems even less likely that anyone will pay much attention if we point out that football matches serve as very convenient excuses for people that like to fight, and that this particular problem is one that is more to do with society in general than football itself.