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Ugly side returns to The Beautiful Game

Shrewsbury | News | Published: | Last Updated:

It was the ugly side of The Beautiful Game. Images of wanton violence marred football throughout the 1970s and 80s, with the very mention of the Chelsea Headhunters, Millwall Bushwackers or Shrewsbury's English Border Front enough to strike fear into the minds of the majority of peaceful supporters.

From the infamous relegation clash between Tottenham and Chelsea in 1975, through to the Heysel disaster of 1984, it was a dark era for British football, accompanied by falls in attendances to a record low during the 1984/5 season.

The common perception is that these days are long behind us. With the angry young men of 40 years ago now mostly past the brawling stage, the sport is marketed as glossy, glamorous and family orientated. For a while it seemed that football rioting had gone the same way as lace-up leather balls and mullet hairstyles with droopy moustaches.

But the events in Marseille at the start of the Euro 2016 tournament show that while British football hooliganism might not be as prolific as it was in the 1970s and 80s, the problem certainly has not gone away.

And worryingly, it seems there is a new generation of football hooligan which seems to be quite happy to take on the mantle from their predecessors.

Last week, 24-year-old Daniel Warlow from Tipton in the West Midlands was banned from watching football for five years after being pictured throwing a chair during ahead of England's opening clash of the tournament against Russia. A court heard that while Warlow had no previous convictions, he was well known to police following clashes with fans at several league games dating back to 2009.

And it seems he is not alone. New figures released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that more than 100 banning orders have been issued to youngsters below the age of 18 – including a boy of just 12 – during the past three years.

The figures show big disparities between different police forces. While Northumbria police barred 43 youngsters from matches, the neighbouring Greater Manchester force did not issue any bans to under 18s.

However, some express the view that Football Banning Orders (FBOs) should only be issued to children as the very last resort. Stories also emerged of youngsters getting designer clothing labels associated with football hooligans sewn into their school uniforms, as well as posting menacing poses on social media.

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Football Banning Orders have been in place for 16 years and were set up to prevent trouble around matches.

Latest figures showed there were 2,181 people on a ban.

  • What do they do? They can last between three and 10 years and the terms of the ban are customised to keep the banned supporter away from games. Exclusion zones around grounds and city centres are usual. Breaching a ban can lead to a £5,000 fine or a prison sentence.
  • How are they made? There are two types. Some follow a conviction for football-related offences, while others are made by a court following a complaint by the Crown Prosecution Service or a police force. Officers present a portfolio of evidence about a suspect before the court, and a ban can be made without the supporter having a criminal prosecution. For that reason, this second type are controversial.
  • What do critics say? Dr Geoff Pearson, a senior law lecturer at Manchester University, felt some innocent fans were banned following “sweep operations” to gather evidence against troublesome supporters, with this second type of civil Football Banning Order. Amanda Jacks, from the Football Supporters’ Federation, said they should be a “last resort” for children, and more should be done to encourage young people to keep out of trouble at games.

Some police forces are visiting schools to warn pupils they could end up with a serious criminal record, or badly hurt, in organised violence.

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The youngest fan to be banned was a 12-year-old boy following trouble in Newcastle city centre after the Magpies were beaten 3-0 at home by arch rivals Sunderland in April 2013. Northumbria Police said the boy threw missiles at opposition fans and was abusive.

The force banned a total of 43 under 18s in the three years up to April this year, 38 of them Newcastle United supporters and five Sunderland fans.

The force said since then it has visited schools to warn pupils that even being verbally abusive at matches could get them banned from following their teams.

West Mercia Police, which says it has made great strides in tackling Shrewsbury's infamous English Border Front over the past 20 years, did not issue any banning orders to children over the period. However, a total of 24 Shrewsbury Town fans were banned during the 2014/15 season, the second highest number in their division during the season.

Over the past 10 years, West Mercia Police has made 95 arrests for violent offences at football matches, although these figures do not specify the clubs involved. More than a third of these arrests were for causing actual bodily harm, but two – during the 2005/6 season – were for firearms offences.

One of the most notorious battles in the county in recent years came in October 2012 when Shrewsbury Town fans clashed with Walsall supporters in Shrewsbury town centre before the two sides were due to play. The melee left one policeman with a broken arm, and saw 16 men plead guilty(G) to offences relating to the violence. Tellingly, four of them were in their teens.

Dyfed-Powys Police was unable to provide figures on the ages of its oldest and youngest fans to be issued with orders. However, the neighbouring North Wales force revealed that the youngest fan to receive a banning order was a 19-year-old, while the oldest was 50. Both were supporters of Wrexham FC.

Amanda Jacks, a case worker with the Football Supporters' Federation, says bans should be issued to youngsters very sparingly. She argues young people should be steered away from trouble before FBOs and the criminal justice system are considered.

Jacks says young fans behaving in a generally anti-social manner are targeted by the police in a way that other gangs of youngsters were not.

"There's no doubt that there is a glamorisation of football disorder and kids are attracted to it for the wrong reason," she says.

"There does need to be some consistency, if 14, 15, 16-year-olds are getting banning orders, that should be the last resort, not the first."

The figures also showed a there were more than 120 of over 50s, including a 60-year-old Arsenal fan and a man of 64 in the Lancashire Police area, who have been banned from attending games in the last three years.

Geoff Pearson, a senior law lecturer at Manchester University, says there are "huge discrepancies" between forces about how they use the Football Banning Order legislation.

He says in Europe, fans groups and clubs run education programmes for youngsters encouraging them to keep out of trouble.

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