There is nothing quite like being a football supporter. The willingness to put up with the discomfort of travelling to your team’s away matches in distant cities and towns which are only entered or skirted in order to visit a football ground for about two hours, is remarkable in itself.
But on top of that self-induced inconvenience and cost, the police, football clubs and match stewards acting with their raft of football-only laws, petty rules and regulations have too often turned what should be an exciting day out into something of a nightmare.
This ‘day in the life’ is the story of what could happen, a worst-case scenario if you like, but each of the events and interventions has happened in the past and can still happen today….
My football-mad friend and I got up at 5am, because the only way we could watch our team play this Saturday was to catch the official supporters coach leaving from our team’s ground at 7am, even though the match kicked off at 3 pm and the journey was only to take four hours. No independent travel to the match by car or train was allowed, and the only way to get a ticket was to exchange a voucher we had bought from the club at a motorway service station that the coach would call at shortly before going on to the away ground.
These contortions were necessary because the game was deemed by the police to be a ‘bubble’ match, which means that we are to be transported as a segregated group across the country, without any contact with the rest of the world and shielded from it by the police.
Being on a designated football supporters’ coach we weren’t allowed to take a couple of beers with us to ease the pain of the journey, because that’s illegal. Even if we stop for a snack we won’t be allowed to have an alcoholic drink because it is banned under the Traffic Commissioner’ Guidelines unless you are having a ‘substantial meal’ as well.
After the long journey up the motorway we arrive at the service station and are met by a phalanx of police officers but finally we get our hands on the precious match tickets. We are to be escorted in a convoy (part of the bubble) to the ground. By now we are feeling more like prisoners being transferred from a jail than members of the public.
Arriving at the ground we are escorted to the turnstiles and aren’t even allowed to walk around the ground, meet our friends who live locally, or go into the club shop. All the time we are filmed by the police. As we are about to go into the ground we are subject to a full pat-down body search, not because there is any evidence that someone is carrying a weapon or anything that could cause any danger, but because it’s permitted by the ground regulations.
My mate brought a flag with our club’s colours on it, but that was confiscated because flags with a pole diameter greater than 7mm in diameter are banned inside the ground in case it is used as a weapon.
As it turns out it was a good job we hadn’t had a few beers because we were also breathalysed, with the reader set for twice the legal limit for driving, a level which would barely register most fans as being a bit merry, rather than drunk. It is illegal to enter a major football ground if you are deemed to be drunk – in the opinion of the stewards or the police.
But finally we make it into the ground where we can buy alcoholic drinks, but have to finish them before taking our seats because, of course, it’s illegal to sup your pint sitting in your seat while waiting for the match to start. There are no such rules at rugby matches or at Wimbledon tennis.
Now the atmosphere’s building up for the game and, as conspicuous away fans segregated in a small part of the ground, we are the target for a lot of relatively good-natured banter so typical of football matches, and a key part of the experience. But we have to be careful what we say because po-faced stewards from a private security company are watching closely and we know we are being filmed by cameras inside the ground. Some of the stewards are wearing body cameras.
We also know that a shouted rude word, or even standing up too often, can be a pathway to an arrest. For stewards it’s enough for them to think that someone is about to do something which breaks their rules for them to physically eject that someone from their seat, and from the ground. An arrest can follow, particularly if they resist in any way and the police are called in.
If an ejection does happen then it is more than likely that the person’s details will be taken by the police and passed back to your home club without your knowledge, stretching data protection laws to the limit. After that it is possible to end up with a club ban, meaning your own club, hundreds of miles away, stopping you from going to your home matches on the word of an official from the away club you are visiting. No evidence is required and there is no right of appeal.
Now the match has gone well for our team and the excitement builds. People spill over on to the edge of the pitch on the sound of the final whistle and two lads are just on the pitch and are arrested immediately – it is a criminal offence to be on the pitch. As a result two people who were just celebrating wildly but harmlessly are facing a criminal record and football banning orders which will entail handing in their passport to the police when England play an away match, even if they have no intention of going to it.
At the same time another fan is waving around a large inflatable shark – very popular with some football fans oddly – and it catches the back of the head of a steward and he’s arrested for common assault and faces a banning order, and possibly a criminal conviction if his case goes to court.
He could even, initially at least, be banned from his place of work if those happened to be within an imposed exclusion zone round his home football ground, as that is often a bail condition. Although he would be able to overturn it, he would have to go to court to do so.
Even when all the excitement dies down we are still barred from leaving the ground for 45 minutes while the home fans disperse. Then we are under police escort back to the coaches. We discover that the bags we left on the coach had been searched by the police while we were in the ground. We don’t know why as no explanation was given by the police.
We are then told that there will be no stopping at the motorway service stations on the way back and the coaches will be lead and tailed by police vehicles.
Finally, after an epic day and back at our home ground, a lot of the travelling supporters still have to make their way home which could be a hundred miles away, because the designated pick up and drop off point for the coaches is only allowed to be that home football stadium. No other pick up or drop off is allowed. Coach companies that disobeyed the rule could lose their accreditation.
Despite everything, it is all worth it to football fans like us but we feel like third-class citizens operating under a very different system from fans of any other sport and from the public itself.
We were treated with suspicion and hostility and were subject to the sort of harassment and risk of arrest that no one would put up with in any other walk of life.
But for a dedicated football fan everything is secondary to being at the game.”