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Football violence: Priti Patel brands hooligans ‘national shame’ as police urge fans ‘reset’ after pandemic

The Independent
The Independent
 2022-08-06

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Football needs to “press the reset button”, police say, as they clamp down on disorder after a season marred by rising violence.

As the new Premier League season begins, authorities are looking to clamp down on dangerous fan behaviour with banning orders targeting cocaine users and powers to bar people from grounds over flares and fireworks.

Priti Patel said the Home Office had been supporting the response by police and the Football Association, extending football banning orders to target cocaine use and the online abuse of players.

“Our football teams are the pride of our country, but thugs who cause ugly violence and disorder at our matches are a national shame,” the home secretary added.

“There is no place for violence at football matches and we are clear there should be a zero-tolerance approach to hooligans.”

PC Adam Collins, a football officer from Derbyshire Constabulary, told The Independent that forces up and down the country had been sharing ideas and making internal preparations.

He said last season’s increase in disorder was not confined to one area, or even to England, with several countries in Europe reporting upticks in football-related violence following the Covid pandemic.

“We were in a really good place before Covid, everything was coming down,” he added.

“I think a massive part of it is coming out of the pandemic, people had been restricted and not allowed in football matches for 18 months.”

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Data released by the UK Football Policing Unit earlier this year showed there had been a 36 per cent increase in reported incidents of disorder in the first half of the last season, compared to the same period in 2019-20.

Disorder was reported at almost half of all games across the Premier League, English Football League and National League, compared to a third before the pandemic, and football-related arrests rose by 47 per cent.

The Sports Grounds Safety Authority said there were also “significant risks to crowd safety” from fireworks and rising numbers of pitch invasions, some of which have seen footballers attacked.

Issues reported across the country were exemplified in the chaos seen at Wembley during the men’s Uefa Euro 2020 final in July 2021, where a review found that high levels of drug use had contributed to “unusually reckless and aggressive behaviour”.

A report said the easing of Covid restrictions created a sense of “release”, while experienced stewards had left their jobs during the pandemic and authorities were “rusty” after an unprecedented gap in matches.

PC Collins said police would be taking a “more positive approach” to making arrests and pursuing football banning orders in the new season.

He said that many forces previously reduced their presence at matches deemed low risk because of a downward trend in incidents before the pandemic, and the surge last year caught them by surprise.

The officer attributes the change to a new generation of fans who were children before March 2020 but can now drink and attend games unattended, a lack of fan engagement and school programmes during the pandemic, as well as cocaine use.

“It was almost like a perfect storm and it did catch us all by surprise,” PC Collins adds. “There were scenes I’ve never seen before, there were matches where fans were ripping up seats and throwing them at officers; one of my colleagues was knocked out with an iron bar.”

He said football was a “mirror image of society” and emphasised that the main issues were confined to men’s games, after a trouble-free women’s Euro 2022 tournament.

“We’re trying to press the reset button, it’s not about reinventing the wheel, it’s about getting back to the place where we were before, and we will,” PC Collins said. “We are in a better place for the start of this season.”

The Football Supporters’ Association said it had received increased reports of disorder, drug use and the use of pyrotechnics, and that there appeared to have been a spike in incidents in a “fractious” post-pandemic season.

Caseworker Amanda Jacks said: “We should be clear that we can't look at fan behaviour in isolation.

“The decline in policing and stewarding standards post-Covid has definitely contributed to the problems we've seen.

“Football as an industry should recognise they can't ban or prosecute their way out of these current trends.”

Ms Jacks said there was no “quick and easy solution” and that supporter groups must be involved in the response to anti-social and criminal behaviour.

Bob Eastwood, the English Football League’s safety and security adviser, said: “It is important to remember that the vast majority of our matches remain incident-free with the overwhelming majority of fans getting behind their team and respecting those around them.”

In May, the government announced an extension of football banning orders to fans convicted of using cocaine at matches, and rules to allow passports to be seized when their teams are playing overseas.

The orders, imposed by courts, could previously be imposed on people convicted of violence, disorder and hate crimes.

In July, the Premier League, EFL and Football Association announced separate measures to ban pitch invaders, drug users and people carrying pyrotechnics from stadiums.

Premier League chief executive Richard Masters said there needed to be a “strong response to a significant increase in fan behaviour issues”.

He added: “We are making clear the type of incidents we saw last season must stop. If we don’t take collective and sustained action, it may only be a matter of time before someone is seriously injured, or worse.”

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