Football has changed drastically over the last few years, and not always for the best. Lee Wagstaff takes a look at the burgeoning Ultra fan culture in England and speaks to the Football Supporters Federation about their role in the changing role of supporters within the game and the issues that they face.

From major issues such as ground redevelopment and foreign takeovers, to trivial matters like Manchester City fans successfully protesting for the removal of sultanas from their Chicken Balti Pies, the number of different football fan groups protesting against something lately has been staggering. There is an underlying sense that many fans have stomached all they can of the increasingly corporate friendly middle class sport. The embarrassing gaps in the Wembley stands as the second half of an England international game kicks off are a sad indication of where English football is headed. English football grounds have become dull, soulless bowls. Close your eyes and you could be in Middlesbrough, Derby, Leicester, Southampton, Coventry, Cardiff or anywhere with the standard McDonaldised, characterless, cantilever morgues that masquerade as football grounds. To be fair, even the traditional old grounds in the heart of their communities such as Goodison Park and White Hart Lane have become bereft of any enthusiasm. Lack of atmosphere, huge costs and the bewilderment at the total imbalance of the league system, where the same filthy rich clubs scoop all the honours every year, are main reasons for fans turning their backs on attending matches. However, lately it is the heavy handed stewards and draconian police forces that are incurring the wrath of football fans, who are starting to fight back.

The Football Supporter’s Federation (FSF) is becoming increasingly popular as they fight for the heritage and tradition of the English game.  The organisation, which is in partnership with human rights movement Liberty, now represents over 142,000 football supporters and have campaigned on numerous occasions for fair treatment of fans. Asked if he felt the number of football fan protests had increased recently, FSF chairman Malcolm Clarke said: “It’s probably fair to say there has been a rise, though it is early days to draw too many conclusions. It’s about time though. One thing that has frustrated us is the docile nature of football fans, who have accepted mistreatment for too long. It has proven difficult to mobilise some fans to stand up for themselves, but now it appears that many are saying enough is enough.”

The FSF is currently running a campaign called ‘Watching Football is not a crime’, aimed at working closely with police to prevent the frivolous use of the contentious Section 27 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006, which allows police to prevent innocent supporters (usually in pubs) from attending a game, if they think there is the potential for alcohol fuelled violence. This has been enforced on Stoke and Doncaster fans, among others recently. Mr Clarke added: “This is a major area of our work, which we have had a great deal of success in. “We got compensation for the 90 Stoke fans issued with the Section 27 orders in Irlam on the way to an away game at Manchester United, whilst we also drew a public apology from Greater Manchester Police over the treatment of Stoke fans in Manchester city centre after a game at Bolton.”

Fans of Crystal Palace are the latest to stage a protest over the heavy handed nature of police and stewards at their games. They marched before their home game with Watford, before issuing Chairman Simon Jordan with a petition relating to the treatment of fans in the Holmesdale Stand during their game with Middlesbrough on November 7, which was the final straw for angry fans who claim they have endured horrendous treatment from the police and stewards at Selhurst Park in the past few years. One Palace fan documented some of the brutish behaviour of the Selhurst Park stewards in a letter to the FSF. The fan claims that stewards had aggressively thrown out a man for arguing about his eight year old son standing on a seat, thus leaving the child alone and unattended in the stand. More shockingly, he reveals that a steward ripped down a banner held up by Palace fans in memory of one of their deceased friends and when confronted, the steward allegedly said, “I couldn’t give a fuck if he’s died!”. These are only allegations made by one fan, but from experience it seems the likelihood that they are true is more than fair. Mike Grafton, who organised the protest march told the Croydon Guardian: “We have started the petition to call on Jordan to change the policing and stewarding and be more respectful to fans as young people are being alienated by the way they are being treated by stewards. There are a few reasons why fans are staying away with stewarding, policing and prices the main three.”

Other club chairmen have come under attack from fans too. The FSF is currently running a petition on behalf of 40 Sunderland fans that have been banned by the club due to an incident at Newcastle station after a pre season game in Scotland. “We find these bans totally unfair because no one has been charged with anything,” added Mr Clarke, “The FSF has become a lot wiser to legal procedure and we are now looking at the infringement of the Data Protection Act in this case, as the details of the innocent fans on the train were passed on to Sunderland Football Club by the Northumberland Police.” Fans have become exasperated at being treated like criminals and many yearn for a reversion back to the days when football afforded them a sense of belonging and a much needed release of stress at the weekend. Many British clubs, particularly in Scotland and the lower English leagues are followed by fanatical support modelling themselves on the flamboyant ultra movements synonymous with Italian football fan culture.

The term ultra tends to fill figures of authority with dread due to the hooligan element and right wing politics that have often accompanied the groups since their emergence in the late 1960s. The Italian government have taken a hard stance on the growing hooligan problem and are now introducing measures to quell the ultra movements by forcing them to carry identification cards in all Italian stadia.  Ironically (and in keeping with the theme of this article), this has incurred a protest by ultras from all clubs, who marched in the streets of Rome recently. It is, however, a common misconception that all ultras are hooligans. They have created breathtaking Tifos (displays) involving the whole end of the stadium and pride themselves on chanting support for their beloved clubs for 90 minutes. They are also strictly opposed to the concept of football being run like a business and banners proclaiming ‘No al Calcio Moderno’ (No to Modern Football) often feature on the terraces during Serie A games. Some of this enthusiasm has clearly rubbed off on the English fan.

Aberdeen started the ultra trend in Britain in 1999, while other clubs such as Celtic, Rangers, Crystal Palace, Accrington Stanley, Barrow, Oxford and York have followed suit. York City fans formed the Jorvik Reds in 2004 and have cranked up the atmosphere everywhere they have been since. One of their leaders says, “We started the Jorvik Reds five years ago. We had become sick of dying atmosphere, losing the love of football, the usual clichés. But it started small, really small.  Maybe two or three of us with long term goals. Now we regularly get 40-50 plus, and sometimes up to 75 or 80 and we managed 300 in the section at Wembley for the FA Trophy Final”. The group have come under criticism for letting off flares and like Palace, have endured a turbulent relationship with the stewards of York City Football Club, but now they appear to be on better terms. “Relations with the club have been up and down, but they are well at the moment. Over five years they have been rocky, too many press articles and backroom arguments to remember. However we have no JR banned, no JR locked up and generally can do our Tifo and carry out our support at home. Away has never been a problem.”

Such youthful enthusiasm is exactly what is needed to save football according to Malcolm Clarke, who fears that new generations of fans are being lost due to cost and the way they are treated at games. He argues, “There is undoubtedly a culture developing in this country where youngsters find it much cheaper and hassle free to watch their team in the pub, where they are able to stand with their mates, drink and create an atmosphere that harks back to the days of the terraces. “Most pubs show every Premier League game through foreign channels, so there is no need for the younger generation to go to the ground to support their team. We are campaigning against the high prices of attending football in the hope that it will attract more people to the stadium, thus improving the atmosphere.”

The face of football in Britain is changing. Although the money men and over assertive authorities have diluted the atmosphere and interest in our national obsession, fans are starting to fight back showing the passion and belief that has been sorely missed from our football grounds for far too long. Club Chairmen and governing bodies such as FIFA know that without the fans, football would be dead and so concessions must be made on ticket prices and being able to attend games without being stigmatised as a criminal. With smaller clubs going bust and as the big clubs continue to rack up incredible amounts of debt, it is only a matter of time before the bottom falls out and football will be forced to go back to basics. When it does, it is safe to assume that the middle classes that currently frequent the main stands of our grounds will have fled the sinking ship as all the top talent goes abroad to plunder another debt ridden league, and maybe then the clubs will realise what a mistake they made in alienating the very people that would stand by them through thick and thin.