Can football stop hooliganism?
By Tony Attwood
Once upon a time most Football League games ended with a ptich invasion. It was largely a case in the 1960s of children and teenagers running on the pitch at the final whistle, some to get autographs, some just because they could. The players and authorities accepted it as part of the game.
But that of course was not the start of these things. The first pitch invasion that was noted in the press was in 1885 when Aston Villa lost at home 0-5 to Preston North End in a friendly.
However that was not the first crowd incident as such because there was at least one earlier event of note, when on 26 January 1895 there was an “incident” in the Division II match at the Woolwich Arsenal ground against Burton Wanderers. The few reference books that mention this “incident” (which I suspect have each copied the information from each other) refer to it as something that involved the referee.
As a result of the “incident” the Woolwich Arsenal ground was closed for four weeks.
There were other incidents during this time, as when in 1908 Arsenal fans at Nottingham Forest’s ground for the match inadvertently set fire to the stand, after letting off a range of home made fireworks. The men worked for the torpedo section of the Woolwich Arsenal factories and thus had access to the necessary ingredients.
Crowd behaviour appears to ebb and flow; there are times of invasions of the pitch and problems in the crowd, and there are other times when nothing much gets reported. Each time we get a new set of issues the reporting is much the same with talk of the “vast majority” of “decent fans” behaving one way and a “minority” spoiling it all for everyone. And nothing changes.
Thus when West Ham fans caused problems for the arriving Man U players bus there was a lot of outrage, but not too much happened thereafter.
The pitch invasions at Everton and Manchester City recently have been condemned of course but no action seems to have been taken against the clubs. And the reason is simple to understand. If Manchester City had a points deduction because of the behaviour of its fans it would lose the title and their lawyers would get their hands on another two-year long case. If they were fined that would mean nothing since their owner would simply pay whatever was required, without even noticing.
The FA have seemed powerless in this regard issuing statements but nothing more. Indeed in one statement they appeared to hand the whole problem back to the clubs saying that the clubs “need to prevent pitch invasions from occurring, as well as taking their own action against those that break the rules and the law. The FA will be seeking to do all that it can to work with clubs as well as addressing the issues from a disciplinary perspective.”
There is an FA rule that says everyone involved with a club (including rather amusingly the club’s “servants”) should behave in an “orderly fashion” which if taken literally would make pretty well every league match illegal. As would the catch-all regulation about people not using “provocative words or behaviour”.
So a club has to control its fans although clubs have the excuse under rule E21 that if the problems were a result of circumstances over which they have no control they are not guilty. How can anyone be responsible for someone else’s behaviour?
The FA can then do pretty much anything it likes to a club found guilty of not controlling the crowd – including closing the ground – as happened to Arsenal in the 19th century. But the power of Manchester City and its willingness to fight anyone who gets in its way in court cases which can go on for years, seems to be putting the FA off tackling them, and that means they don’t really want to try and take on anyone else.
Individual fans can be charged with a criminal offence, as was the Nottingham Forest fan who headbutted Billy Sharp. A few other individual fans have been charged by the police, but mostly we are still at the level of clubs saying they will ban for life anyone found guilty of being involved in a serious incident, and then nothing much happens. Which is odd since as everything in football is filmed multiple times, and since most people at matches have to be members in order to get in, everyone can be readily identified. If not the system could be readily improved by putting photo ID on the gates as one comes in.
So the regulations are there, and the technology is there, and the sanctions are there. But no one wants to use them. So why not?
The FA has a long history of hitting those it doesn’t like while dithering about everything else. Arsenal were punished for problems in the ground in the 19th century, but few other clubs suffered any such action. The FA stopped women playing matches on grounds used by men in 1921 and so brought women’s football to an end. But taking on Manchester City? It seems unlikely.
The League could bring in a rule which deducted points from the club for each person who entered the field of play during a game – but there’s no talk of that. Although to be fair that would give away supporters the incentive to invade the pitch, in order to get that points deduction from the home team. Fines certainly don’t mean anything because clubs have different amounts of money, and what on earth would be the point in fining Manchester City or Newcastle United?
It is often said that the impact of the pitch invaders needs to be such that “real fans” (ie non-invaders) are not penalised, but in fact if everyone coming into a ground has a membership, then stage one can always be to weed out the criminals. So in response to the first incident, or maybe even the first two incidents, the club is told to remove membership from all those involved, after that the club gets punished for continuing to allow tickets to get into the hands of those who will disrupt a game or invade the pitch.
It really doesn’t seem that hard.
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