by Tony Attwood
The issue of a club being responsible for the behaviour of its fans is one that has been debated by Arsenal and its supporters since the early days of Arsenal as a league club, for as you will know if you follow the reports and anniversary series published by the AISA Arsenal History Society, Arsenal were the first club to face this issue at least in a major way.
After crowd trouble in a game in January 1895 the League ruled that Arsenal’s ground should be closed for the rest of the season. Upon appeal that was reduced to six weeks. Controversially an almost similar incident at the Wolverhampton Wanderers ground the following October led to a ground closure of just two weeks, and it was noted in the press that there was no consistency here.
There have been ground closures subsequently – the History Society recently uncovered the story of the closure of Stockport’s ground in 1921 following crowd trouble, forcing them to play their last match of the season at Manchester United’s ground immediately after a Man U match. This one is remembered for allegedly having the smallest ever crowd at a football match – although like so many tales in football it isn’t true. (The full story is contained in the Society’s report covering Arsenal in May and June 1921.
I mention all this in relation to last night’s problems as Liverpool supporters attacked the Manchester City team bus with bottles, cans, flares and firecrackers making the bus unroadworthy. The Telegraph comments today that “The incident raised questions about Liverpool and Merseyside Police’s decision to issue a tweet broadcasting changes to the route the busses were taking to the ground.” The paper also reports that Manchester City had raised serious concerns about the situation to the police before the incidents, but the police chose to take no action based on the concerns.
Attacking the team bus of the opposition is of course nothing new, and indeed there was a major incident of this nature as recently as May 2016 as West Ham supporters attacked the Manchester United bus. On that occasion other “incidents” continued through the game.
That event was also notable as being an occasion in which David Sullivan the West Ham co-chair made one of his speeches. In this case he said, “If you check the coach there won’t be any damage to it. There were people around the coach but there was no attack on the coach.” It was of course gibberish, as we have come to expect.
Mr Sullivan also said that the Man U players and staff should have got off the coach and walked to the ground.
It all raises the question of just who should take responsibility to for issues outside the ground, and then again inside the ground, and what (if any) punishment there should be for clubs (or indeed the police) when the arrangements they have put in place allow for a breakdown in public order.
In such cases it might be argued that the police are to blame for not insisting on specific procedures being followed, or not providing enough officers (although personally I think that given the swingeing cuts to police budgets in recent years I’d be more likely to blame the Home Secretary). But also the home club could be to blame for not organising matters in a way least likely to result in trouble, the away could could be blamed if it is deemed that it is responsible for the behaviour of its individual fans, and of course individual can be blamed for breaking the law such as via public order offences.
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By and large I’ve always been a law abiding citizen both in and around football matches and other large gatherings such as political demonstrations, rock concerts and the like, and certainly now, as I have got older and am thus more vulnerable (in that I can’t run as fast as I used to be able to in order to get out of the way of any trouble that erupts) I have an even greater desire to be safe going to and from matches and inside the ground.
And perhaps because of this I do feel that clubs (along with the police and the government that has so radically cut police funding) should take responsibility for everything that they have a hand in. Arsenal for example, don’t have any visible police presence within the stadium, nor in the area surrounding the stadium on the land owned by Arsenal. As one enters that zone each person is checked by stewards and checked again as one walks up to the turnstiles, but normally there are no police other than their helicopter flying overhead.
Beyond that area however there is a police presence in the streets, and at the railway and underground station. But who pays?
Well, in 2008 Greater Manchester Police won court case against Wigan Athletic over police costs for matches which allowed the police to charge for their services outside stadiums. Although some police forces then moved to full cost recovery others did not, accepting the argument that football is part of the economic life of towns and cities, and that many smaller clubs could be badly affected if they had to pay more.
Since then the police have charged more for policing Premier League matches in Manchester than anywhere else, with Manchester City paying just under £1m for police services a couple of seasons ago (I can’t find more recent figures). Man U paid a similar cost. Liverpool paid £554,550 per season although why they got away with half price I don’t know.
But the five PL teams under the Metropolitan Police’s jurisdiction were charged a combined £178,047 for policing the areas inside and immediately outside stadiums controlled by the clubs in the 2015-16 campaign. Arsenal paid £32,436.
These sums are agreed between the police and the clubs so presumably in the light of events the police could argue that they needed a much higher presence at Liverpool games, and then simply present the bill to the club.
However the case of West Ham in policing remains the most curious of all especially after the widespread disorder within the ground during the match against Burnley. I am not sure if the FA have done anything about that situation yet, but the last I heard the directors of West Ham (never, in my estimation, the first people to accept responsibility for anything) were demanding that the stadium operator (known quaintly as LS185 – basically an organisation paid for by tax payers) should pay for the police inside and outside the ground. So every tax payer has to pay for the security of fans inside the ground.
Personally I think each club should pay for all the policing which should induce the clubs to take all aspects of security of fans and local residents more seriously. I am not sure that Liverpool did this by publicising the route the opposition’s bus would take to the ground, although nor it seems did the local police do enough, despite all the money they charged the clubs.
Which raises a further point. The police decided on how much of a police presence there should be, and then charged the club. But the police got it very wrong and there was violence. Should the police be blamed for under policing the event? Should the club be blamed for not putting enough security in place. Or should it just be the individuals involved – who are after all responsible for their own behaviour?
Personally I blame the government for under-funding the police. But then, that’s what I always do.