Opinion: Is watching football a crime?

London police. Photo courtesy of Louis Kreusel on FlickrBack in March I wrote about the draconian policing methods being employed against Hull City fans. It’s more than a little depressing that, just a few weeks later, another set of football fans have had their civil liberties attacked.

This time it’s Brighton and Hove Albion supporters who were the target of unnecessary and heavy handed restrictions that should send a shudder down the spine of any liberal.

Brighton fans who attended the Play-off match against Crystal Palace were required to carry a separate document which confirmed their identity, and agree to hand over their ticket and identity document for examination by a police officer or steward at the stadium or en route to or from the stadium.

In his excellent article on the subject, Michael Calvin described the restrictions as “Orwellian” and an “ID system by the back door”. I couldn’t agree more. This seems to be an under the radar way of bringing back Thatcher’s football fan ID scheme from the 80’s or Labour’s wretched plans from their time in Government – without having to go through the bother of passing any legislation.

Two law firms have called into serious question the legality of what the police and clubs proposed. You can read their take on the restrictions here (pdf) and here (pdf).

Some will seek to defend these policing methods using the cliché that all football fans are hooligans and that these measures are necessary. Turning a blind eye to the fact that the vast majority of football fans go about their business in a peaceful manner, illiberal policing tactics are justified by the bad behaviour of a tiny minority. The Football Supporters’ Federation have pointed out that while there is only one arrest for every 15,782 football spectators, last year’s Notting Hill Carnival saw one arrest for every 8,361 people. As they say; “There would quite rightly be an outcry if police forced the Carnival’s attendees to carry ID under threat of expulsion from the area.”

For those of you unconvinced, just ask yourself; would you be happy, when going about your perfectly legal business, to have to provide ID (and proof of where you were going) to a policeman?

I’m heartened by the recent announcement of the formation of Lib Dem Friends of Football. I hope this group will provide a strong, liberal voice in defence of football supporter’s civil liberties. I also hope it will be a conduit to raising these issues with our Parliamentarians. It saddens me that instances such as these can go uncommented on by the Party or our MPs.

Is watching football a crime? No it isn’t. The police forces that use these draconian tactics and the football clubs that are complicit by supporting them need to be reminded of this. I hope as Liberal Democrats, people who believe in civil liberties for everyone, not just certain groups, we will take a lead in doing this and stop the continued criminalisation of football supporters.

Read more by or more about , or .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Nonconformistradical 13th May '13 - 9:10am

    “I’m heartened by the recent announcement of the formation of Lib Dem Friends of Football.”
    I note their inaugural meeting starts at around the same time this evening as people will be turning up at the Amex stadium for the return playoff leg – seems appropriate timing. I have no interest in football myself but I wish the new organisation well.

    The Amex Stadium is in the immediate vicinity of Sussex University and the Falmer campus of Brighton University. Should we expect that anyone getting off a train at Falmer Station early this evening with the express intention of going to either university campus (there won’t be many commuters but the same applies to any of them trying to get home) rather than to the football match might be subject to id checks by the police?

  • @Dave Page
    “non-fan victims of football-related violence, ”

    What about football fans that are victims of violence from non-football fans? What about football fans that are the victims of football ‘fans’? Instead of categorising people by whichever arbitrary hobby they happen to follow, do you not think it would be better to classify people by whether they are law-abiding or not and do something to make sure sure the law-abiding are protected from those do not abide by the law? Secondly, what is football-related violence exactly? – other than an expression you’ve created to try and create some kind of link between a sport and the bad behaviour of some individuals in some random manner. If Iwere to follow your logic then because someone was murdered in an argument in my local chippy two years ago I would therefore want to ID everyone going to chip shops because of chippy-related violence. I can’t think of anything more irrational or illiberal.

    “However, given Steve Bradley’s attempts to deny and derail any debate of the second, I don’t think it’s going to come from Lib Dem Friends of Football, which is a shame – a true friend of the sport would surely want to address the way it divides society as well as unites it.”

    Steve Bradley can speak for himself, but he actually did no such thing. You are the one distorting, denying and derailing rational, evidence-based debate based on liberal principles.

    How does sport divide society exactly? It does nothing more to divide society than opera. In a free society, people should have a choice between whether they go to the opera or a football match or whatever. They should not be harassed by the state for choosing to either participate or not in those activities. You are advocating that the state should continue to harass law-abiding, peaceful citizens. You are also blaming those peaceful citizens for the completely unrelated actions of violent individuals.

  • [citation needed]

    No, it’s true that you haven’t made any explicit approval of the police harassing law-abiding, peaceful citizens. You’ve also done nothing to denounce the police for harassing law-abiding, peaceful citizens. You have, repeatedly, linked ‘football’, and by association anyone involved in football as a sport or as a spectator, to the violence conducted by a few individuals.

  • @Frank You’re right that these restrictions were because of the rivalry between the clubs and their matches are often subject to heavy handed policing . While there has been some small scale trouble recently involving a few fans, there has been nothing to justify targeting either teams’ fan base as a whole. In fact fans were commended by the police after their last meeting for their good behaviour. History (or even more recent incidents involving a small minority) should not be used as an excuse to criminalise all fans.

  • Julian Tisi 13th May '13 - 1:46pm

    While I thoroughly agreed with your previous article https://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-its-time-to-burst-the-football-fans-bubble-33724.html I’m not sure I do this time.

    As Frank Little points out, there has been a history of trouble between Brighton and Palace. The police need some tools to help prevent violence and asking fans to carry some ID doesn’t seem to be too onerous to me.

    Liberty is always about a balance. As a rule of thumb I would ask: is the impact on liberty justified by the potential threat? For example, are we flagrantly denying the liberty of airline passengers by requiring them to carry passports and submit themselves to security checks? Probably not.

  • @Dave That’s exactly what we should be doing – personally I believe the answer is more intelligence led policing, targeting known trouble makers, not using a blanket approach which treats the good and the bad the same. Clearly everybody’s safety should be considered but this shouldn’t be used as an excuse for some of the draconian methods being used by certain police forces. I think proper dialogue with fans is another key aspect of ensuring policing that everybody can be happy with.

    I think you’re being harsh on Steve Bradley and Lib Dem Friends of Football – in debates like this people have strong opinions (and I share a lot of Steve’s to be honest). I don’t think he was trying to derail any debate – perhaps it was just something you need to agree to disagree on. In terms of the new group, as I said in the article, I have high hopes for it and believe it’s the best way of the party developing a liberal line on football policing (as well as many other football related issues).

  • @Julian While I don’t deny the “history” between these two clubs – there have only been 15 arrests in their last three meetings. Surely that doesn’t justify all fans having to carry ID which must be presented to stewards or the police on threat of expulsion from the area and one year bans?

    My club, Tottenham, have “history” with several other teams – should I have to carry my passport with me every time we play Chelsea, Arsenal or West Ham? Should I be subject to identity checks walking down Tottenham High Road every time there’s a London derby?

    Surely targeted, intelligence led policing is the way to combat hooliganism not blanket restrictions on all fans.

  • You really need to see football from the outside Steve.

    To go with your earlier metaphor – this isn’t a chip shop where someone was stabbed one time two years ago: this is a chip shop where the behaviour of many of the regulars is such that people have verbal abuse and / or bricks thrown at them every day just for walking down the street where the chippy is, or for passing people on other streets who are carrying their deep-fried dinner home.

    Many customers of the chippy may be eating their dinner quietly but fitting the CCTV camera to the front of the shop is still going to be so helpful as to offset the loss of privacy of battered-cod-eating folks.

  • Matt Hemsley 14th May '13 - 11:46am

    As a Southampton fan who watches the team home and away, I’ve long been disgusted at the treatment of those undertaking a legal activity by the authorities. In fact, in many cases the authorities -in particular the police – totally inappropriate and heavy-handed approach actually makes the situation worse.

    Away fans are often treated like cattle, and frog-marched around visiting towns, while we see the more extreme examples of the ‘bubble’ and the Brighton v Palace farce. Then there is the application of section 27, which has seen numerous misuses

    Of course football still attracts an idiotic minority, but there is a substantial idiotic minority who go out drinking in city centres at the weekend, and the police treat them totally differently. In fact, if any other group of people was treated in this way by police and the authorities then the country would rightly be up in arms. Sadly, even many liberals are happy to support the illberal treatment of football fans by authorities.

    I welcome the increased debate within the party to look at how to tackle this. Thankfully I was well treated by police on my visit to Sunderland this past weekend.

  • Nonconformistradical 14th May '13 - 11:56am

    I feel Matt Hemsley has the right perspective on this – especially his point about police taking a different attitude towards binge-drinking hooligans. A hooligan is a hooligan – whether exhibiting hooligan behaviour in the context of a football match or in a town centre while the worse for drink.

    Sussex Police – according to their website at http://www.sussex.police.uk/whats-happening/latest/news-stories/2013/05/14/police-thank-albion-and-palace-fans/?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter don’t seem to have had that much trouble at yesterday’s match.

  • @Jen
    “this isn’t a chip shop where someone was stabbed one time two years ago: this is a chip shop where the behaviour of many of the regulars is such that people have verbal abuse and / or bricks thrown at them every day just for walking down the street where the chippy is”

    Really? Have you ever actually been to a football match or been anywhere near a football match taking place? I’ve been going to matches for over 20 years and I have never seen any violent behaviour in the crowds outside of the grounds I’ve visited. I have only ever seen one incident that resulted in police intervention inside the ground but even that didn’t result in any arrests, just the repatriation of two supporters to ‘their’ end of the ground. So, I’ve been to been to football matches with literally millions of people and have only ever seen one event that warranted police intervention. You analogy is very wide of the mark not only of my first-hand experience but of the statistics relating the number of offences committed by individuals within football crowds.

    Can you please tell me where you’ve seen these incidents of bricks being thrown every day? Have you informed the police? What did they say/do about it?

  • Stuart Mitchell 14th May '13 - 7:13pm

    Like the OP and Steve Bradley, you are failing to consider the possibility that football violence is so rare these days because the police are doing a really good job of preventing it – using a wide variety of innovative techniques which vary from game to game depending on the teams/location/time involved. I think the OP should take a break from whingeing and give the police some credit for the part they play in making football grounds today a much safer place than they were in the ’70s, when brutality by fans against other fans, and indeed by the police towards fans, was commonplace. The most sophisticated police tactic back then was to whack a random person on the head with a truncheon while riding past on a horse. Be thankful things have improved. We have seen several recent examples (Wembley stadium and Newcastle city centre spring to mind) of what happens when the police take their eye off the ball; it’s a difficult balance to strike, and some appreciation of that would be nice.

    These particular restrictions may well be on the heavy side but as others have pointed out, there is a decades-long animosity between the Palace and Brighton fans. See :-


    Instead of having a go at the police for trying to keep these two “warring” factions apart, your time might be better spent pondering what it is about football that makes otherwise civilised people behave in such an infantile, tribal way. I love football but loathe the two-fingers-up culture that surrounds it. One of my favourite diversions when watching games on TV is to observe the snarling hatred on the faces of the fans (sometimes even little grey-haired old grannies) clustered round the corner flag when an opposing player is about to take a kick. There is something deeply wrong with people like that.

  • @Matt Couldn’t agree more!

    (P.S. Great blog on fans’ transport/k.o off times – http://www.bettertransport.org.uk/blogs/football/ups-and-downs-of-the-football-season for anyone’s that interested )

  • @ Stuart Mitchell I find it a tad depressing that you consider questioning highly illiberal policing methods such as restricting freedom of travel and demanding people carry ID “whingeing”. I would of thought as liberals and Lib Dems it is exactly the sort of thing we should be doing. I wonder if you would consider it such if I was talking about restrictions placed on any other section of society?

    I have never criticised innovative policing techniques in relation to football matches – in fact I strongly welcome them. As I’ve said in a previous reply, I support targeted, intelligence led policing of football. I applaud police forces who work with fans and clubs and bother to build good relationships with them.

    I’m afraid there is nothing innovative about either bubble matches or requiring fans to carry ID – in fact I’d say these tactics actually hark back to the bad days of football policing. ID cards for football fans is an idea straight from the 80s. These methods are just lazy; it’s so much easier treating all fans as criminals than actually rooting out the tiny majority who may be out to cause trouble. Just maybe there is a correlation between police treating supporters like human beings and the reduction in football violence?

    I think your view of football fans is a little insulting to be honest and it is perhaps this prevailing (and unfounded) view of supporters as hooligans that means so many seem to find it acceptable to casually suspend their civil liberties.

  • @Stuart Mitchell
    A huge demographic shift occurred in the composition of football crowds following the implementation of the Taylor report around 20 years ago. The investment that flowed into creating safer all-seater grounds saw a massive increase in football attendances and a return of the middle-aged and families to our grounds. The hostile atmosphere prior to that investment put off almost anyone who wasn’t a teenage boy/young man. That hostile atmosphere was created by the decaying, overcrowded terraces, the hostility of the police to all football supporters in addition to the hooliganism. All seater stadiums are not just safer but they make it far easier for clubs and the police to identify offenders inside the stadiums. I see no evidence that a change in police tactics reduced the levels of criminality seen decades ago.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

If you are a member of the party, you can have the Lib Dem Logo appear next to your comments to show this. You must be registered for our forum and can then login on this public site with the same username and password.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Katharine Pindar
    Peter Martin. I don't think it is constructive to discuss this any more, Peter, and to be fair I am taking the same line with one activist in my local Lib Dem p...
  • Katharine Pindar
    Michael BG. Insofar as some of what Keir Starmer says are his principles is similar to what Ed Davey is saying, that bodes well for the future, when we may hope...
  • John Marriott
    There’s a simple solution to this dilemma. Don’t do social media!!...
  • John Marriott
    If they do deliver ‘voting reform’ in Canada, what chance is there of ANY party gaining a majority on its own?...
  • John Marriott
    1 Repeal the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act - it’s clearly not working 2 Decriminalise the possession of drugs for personal use - use the Portuguese example 3 Tre...