In recent times, incidents of anti-social behavior and violence at football matches in England has been rapidly increasing. Reading the stories on social media each weekend, it would seem that the dark days of the 1970s and 80s are slowly reappearing. So what is causing this rise in hooliganism, and what, if anything can be done to stem the tide?
Many believe that this rise in hooliganism has all stemmed from the events at the Euro 2020 Final at Wembley stadium. Despite a reduced stadium capacity (due to Covid-19 restrictions) more than the ‘normal’ stadium capacity of 90,000 gathered outside on ‘Wembley Way’ before the game, apparently to celebrate the biggest day in English football since 1966. However, the party mood did not last long.
In the preceding hours leading up to the game it became clear in the increasingly raucous atmosphere that a large proportion did not have tickets. Furthermore, it was clear that the authorities – both stadium security and the police – did not have the resources in place to handle the situation.
Perhaps buoyed by this, those ticket-less fans decided to make their play, and proceeded to break down fences and overrun turnstiles to gain entry. Some even stole tickets from the hands of those who had purchased. Fights broke out within the stadium as those who had broken in occupied seats of paying fans. Despite the FA and Wembley management downplaying the seriousness of the situation, it may have only been the Covid-induced reduced capacity that prevented a far more serious situation of overcrowding occurring.
The whole day was a bad one for English football, not just the fact that the hosts had lost on penalties, but in particular the incidents before and during the game were a national embarrassment and cast doubt on the nation’s future ability to host major international football tournaments.
Another more recent example of football hooliganism occurred when Nottingham Forest and Leicester City met in the fourth round of the FA Cup in February. Fans clashing was expected as a large amount of security was present at the City Ground for this East Midlands derby.
But when the home side took a shock 3-0 lead at the half-hour mark against their Premier League opponents those in the stadium and watching at home saw the situation turn ugly. A fan ran onto the pitch from the Leicester City away end and attacked the Nottingham Forest players celebrating. The ‘fan’ was immediately taken away by several stewards. The person was later identified as Cameron Toner, aged 19, and was sentenced to four months in youth custody and a ten-year ban from football games.
The most concerning thing of all of this though in my opinion is the age that some of these hooligans are. These are not the grizzled middle-aged members of hooligan ‘firms’ that blighted English football for decades; they are teenagers who are not with any trusted adult. But like their predecessors, these ‘fans’ also do not go to watch the football like the vast majority in the stands – they go to try and pick a fight with the opposing fans. Is it possible that this mind-set is simply a physical manifestation of what happens on social media every day?
Another impact of anti-social behavior at football games is the effect of Class A drugs, often cocaine, and alcohol; anyone who read the first-hand accounts of the Euro 2020 final will have seen the common theme of substance abuse appearing over and over. English football, especially the Premier League, made great efforts to rebrand the match-day experience as a family friendly event, and stadium improvements and increased security meant that going to a game in the 1990s and 2000s was nothing like the dark days of the past. But today in England, according to The Times’ report on football violence, there are only two national football police officers, so is it reasonable to ask that the authorities have taken their eye off the ball?
I have personally had an experience of these alleged fans when I went to watch my club, Southend United, away to Dagenham and Redbridge in the FA Trophy (the equivalent of the Carabao Cup for non-league). With both clubs not being that far away from each other this was considered a rivalry by some fans. Before the game, a small minority of away supporters stormed into the standing end which was also partly accompanied by the home side which caused a lot of tension.
Those fans were slowly moved away but after the hosts took a 2-0 lead in the second half, violent behavior ensued including a Southend fan fighting others from the Dagenham stand. This prompted their ‘fans’ to throw objects, which is when I was hit by a coin. This was the first time I have been to a football match and felt slightly vulnerable, but also the first of many regular occurrences this season.
Overall, hooliganism has certainly gotten worse throughout the season in the UK. Objects are thrown, players are being attacked by fans and turnstiles overwhelmed. This unfortunately brings us back to the question we thought had been answered in the 1990s – are the clubs, the football authorities and the police doing enough to keep people and players safe?