SJ MASKELL: Is simply supporting your team such a crime?
By SJ Maskell
Saturday 10 Sep 2011 11:05:00
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In the surreal post-industrial landscape around Middlesbrough’s Riverside stadium at the start of the season I had an interesting encounter. We were having the pre-match alcohol top-up at a little bijou watering hole, surrounded by several of Middlesbrough’s finest.

These lairy young chaps were doing their best to convince us that John Carew had signed for them and would be playing that afternoon. Much hilarity and banter ensued, enhanced by the appearance of several of Her Majesty’s police officers.

The banter turned onto them and they rejoined in like manner. Our drinking companions were obviously well known to them, and they exchanged jocular remarks about crowd control. I ventured to ask one of the officers, ‘Do stewards make your job more difficult?’ His eyes rolled to the top of his head as the likely lads cheered his reaction.

However, his answer was more politic. He simply said that the police were there to back the stewards up in doing their job. The thought had occurred to me after the events at Reading and Cardiff last season. Reports of stewarding at both games suggested that the way stewards had handled themselves had exacerbated an already hot situation.

We have all seen the steward who plants himself in front of the away fans in pugnacious stance, ready to take on all-comers. At Cardiff, where home fans were very close and winding our fans up nicely, there was an incident where stewards tried to eject a Pompey fan by dragging him through the main section of fans.

An eye witness described it: “People were taking to a displeasing attitude towards how they were conducting themselves. It ended up in Pompey fans pushing and pulling the offender and presumably his friend who was sticking up for him, the stewards gained in number to about 10 by this point and were pretty much around the whole group.” Stewards were trying to push Pompey fans out of the way and matters were coming to a confrontation.

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It took the intervention of my eye witness, a squaddie as it happens, to calm the situation by “treating people like human beings” and saving one steward from being punched. For his pains he got told to sit down or he would get thrown out too. The intervention of the police got the offender out by a less populated route, which makes you wonder why the stewards hadn’t gone that way in the first instance.

There was no doubt in the minds of Pompey fans who saw the incident that the stewards were unnecessarily aggressive and, in losing their tempers, made a bad situation worse.
Thing is, its not just some stewards at matches that over-react to football fans.

There is still this 1980s attitude football supporters are likely to break the law. Take the police category of the ‘risk supporter’. The ‘risk supporter’ is  someone, “whether known or not, who can be regarded as posing a possible risk to public order or anti-social behaviour, whether planned or spontaneous, at or in connection with a football event.” Police tracking football fans can categorise supporters on the basis of very little, or no, evidence.

If they think you are a ‘risk’ then you are one, even if you are only associating with already identified ‘risk supporters.’ There are no hard and fast rules and neither you nor your associates will know if you have been so identified. Covert tracking of football fans allows for this. This categorisation can be used in evidence towards a banning order.

There are two ways to get a football banning order (FBO) according to the Football (Disorder) Act 2000. One is under Section 14(A) with which most people are familiar. This is a criminal sanction following a conviction, typically of a football-related offence. The other is under Section 14(B), a civil injunction following a complaint by police. A banning order under Section 14(B) is exactly the same as one under 14(A) in duration, terms and restriction of freedoms, but you don’t have to be convicted (in fact you don’t even have to ever have been arrested) of any offence for police to apply for the order.

As the ‘conviction’ under 14 (B) is a civil one, a lower standard of proof is required.  The police only have to prove that ‘in the balance of probabilities’ you are likely to commit an offence rather than ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ you have actually committed one.  

Being categorised as a ‘risk supporter’ is seen as adding to those probabilities. (More info can be found here) Numbers of fans with 14(B) FBOs are in the high hundreds, according to the Football Supporters Federation (FSF). The resulting damage it can do to their lives in terms of employability alone can be devastating.

This makes you look at the incidents described above in a different light. The eye witness at Cardiff, who stopped a steward being punched, was fronted by a steward and seen in the middle of the fray. Could covert filming of that, with no recording of what was said, label someone who was trying to stop a situation escalating as a ‘risk supporter’?

Could I in my encounter at Middlesbrough have been associating and bantering with other known ‘risk supporters’ and thereby be categorised as one? If the police wanted to do so, the answer is yes.
Football fans can be condemned BEFORE they commit a crime. It puts the onus on those doing the policing being fair rather than on fans behaving properly. The worrying thing is, if police are backing stewards, and stewards are exacerbating situations as was seen at Cardiff can we really rely on that fairness occurring?

The FSF are campaigning against such treatment of football fans and run a help scheme for those that fall victim of it: details here.  The Pompey Supporters’ Trust also have a helpline for fans in trouble. The PST Away Match Helpline is on 07980 843600 for six hours before the game and four hours after.

 
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