Last Sunday was one of those occasions when you really appreciate being a football fan. A procession of fans pouring across country to follow their side, congregating and dominating the area around the ground in a good-natured manner, welcomed by the local fans and club, who were a credit to themselves as a positive, friendly atmosphere prevailed. Just look at the home end when County score – only one twit runs to the side to taunt the Wrexham fans. That’s got to be some kind of record!
It felt more like a festival as crowds relaxed in the pre-match sun. Obviously the main reason for this is simple: Notts County is a classy club. However, there was another contributory factor which a lot of people can learn a lesson from. Nottinghamshire Police were superb. I’ll explain how in a bit, but there’s a lot of context to unpack first.
Sadly, I’ve become worn down by the behavior of police officers I’ve seen at football matches. I guess Hillsborough opened my eyes, and my opinion of the policing of football matches has deteriorated ever since, reaching the nadir when the “Bubble Matches” were introduced – such a light, frothy name for the brutalising of football fans, irrespective of their gender, age, nature or intentions.
I know brutalise is a terribly strong word, but I stand by it. I’ve seen my best friend – the nicest, most affable guy you could ever hope to meet, and the last guy who’d start trouble- pushed onto his back, into a busy dual carriageway because we crossed the road to the car park where we were parked rather than walk with the rest of the Wrexham fans to Crewe Station. Luckily the car he fell in front of stopped in time, and a senior officer, sniffing a potential complaint, stepped in and told us we were free to go to our car. But this isn’t North Korea, and I’m not a criminal. If I want to walk to my car peacefully, why should it be a favour granted to me out of a desire for self-preservation?
You might argue that it was impossible for those officers to know that my mate and I weren’t trouble makers. True, but what happens when we look at a stranger and assume they’re violent or obnoxious, just because they’ve been to a football match? I know the likes of Trump, Farage and Johnson have managed to bring prejudice back into fashion, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay.
Such treatment simply doesn’t do anything but cause resentment. Dehumanising football fans can only stoke up tension. Those early “Bubble Games” could be portrayed as successful because they did keep the rival fans apart. There was no violence at those games, I accept, but the atmosphere was more poisonous than anything I’ve ever experienced.
For context, in case you think I don’t have much experience of such matters, I grew up in the 1980s, watching football in the rawest of atmospheres. I’ve been in The Racecourse when the entire crowd booed every touch by Garth Crooks because of the colour of his skin. I’ve travelled around Europe watching matches, been caught up in the middle of an attack by Milan ultras on Fiorentina fans, fleeing as the bloke next to me collapsed, a coin splitting his forehead open. But the first two “Bubble Matches” were the most vile, hateful atmospheres I’ve ever experienced.
I felt, rather cynically, that when the bubble was deflated it was a tactical ploy. Having stoked up the anger, the first post-bubble game would be a bloodbath, and the reinstatement of such draconian measures could be justified because, well, you just can’t trust football fans, can you?
Except the opposite happened. Treated like human beings, the fans behaved as such.
I know there are trouble-makers who deserve to be controlled. Wrexham has developed a small, unpleasant contingent of supporters who bring shame on the good name of a fan-owned club. Sadly, that’s a reflection of how the sense of society has deteriorated in recent years. Yet it’s also encouraged by fans getting used to being prejudged to be delinquent. The numbers of the disaffected are swollen by mistreatment: you might just have noticed how the pre- and post-referendum economic decline coincides with the rise in angry dissatisfaction.
When every other weekend you are greeted at a railway station by the police, who march you with all the other fans to a “safe” pub and detain you there, you might just have a negative idea of how the world perceives you, and decide that if everyone thinks you’re trouble, there’s no point in failing to live up to their expectations.
I know, from first-hand accounts, of minors being treated in this way and, upon telling the police that they are underage and want to leave, were given short shrift.
Which is why I was so impressed on Sunday. Almost immediately after arriving I was witness to two officers chatting away to a group of Wrexham fans about football. Round the corner, a similar scenario was developing, as supporters were given recommendations and directions to welcoming pubs. Then fans by the Jimmy Sirrell statue were given a hand finding the queue for tickets to the away end.
It was relaxed, friendly and natural. Every police officer I saw had a smile on their face. Every one was approachable. I couldn’t help but compliment a couple of them for their positive manner, and how it contrasted with my usual experience.
Okay, you could be cynical and argue that in directing the fans to suitable pubs they were doing what I described earlier; sending them to pre-arranged places so they could be more easily controlled. Maybe so, but what a contrast with the usual way that’s done! Anyway, even though the Notts County fans were a good bunch, I’d be grateful if I was told to steer clear of the County pub by Trent Bridge, or tipped off that there’d be no point going to the club bar because it’s home fans only.
The behaviour of Nottinghamshire Police before the game was consistent with the message they transmitted beforehand. They tweeted a pre-match welcome to both sets of fans, linking to a statement from Stephen Cartwright, the Match Commander, stating that
Together with both clubs, our aim is ensure everyone who attends is able to enjoy what should be an entertaining game in safe and secure environment.Stephen Cartwright, Nottinghamshire Police
The statement did list possible offences and their potential repercussions, but that’s fine by me. Pointing out that chanting is fun, but racist fun is totally unacceptable is absolutely spot on.
Let someone understand the consequences of misbehaviour and it’s their fault if they ignore the advice. Assume they’ll misbehave, and you create a self-fulfilling prophecy. It also contained pub recommendations and an assurance that officers were there to help.
The fans made the occasion with their positive attitude. But would that have been the case with the more usual approach to policing the fixture? Nottinghamshire Police deserve real credit for their attitude to 1,600 fans arriving in town.