Heavy handed policing can crop up at all levels, as Jonny Chapman reports

As an away fan at the Emley v Boston Utd FA Trophy tie in January I was as bemused as the rest of our support to hear a Tannoy message asking us to stop using bad language as “it is giving your club a bad name”. I hasten to add that there was nothing racist or intimidatory about the songs. Most clubs must have a comparably “bad name” since the refrain to ‘Can you hear the Emley sing?” is not the most original chant ever.

 This bemusement turned to shock when, 20 minutes into the game 15 policemen arrived. Around half had batons and anti-knife jackets. The away supporters did decrease their swearing accordingly, if not their chanting – we heard, “If you all hate swearing clap your hands.” But a few did swear and six were arrested and escorted from the ground with a policeman on either arm. All six were subsequently bound over for a year and fined £150. The Boston Target quoted United secretary John Blackwell as saying that the club was “trying to cultivate a youth policy and did not want young boys to be confronted with such bad language”. As though United players never swear within earshot of the crowd.

Inspector Broadhead of the West Yorkshire Police is responsible for the policing of the Emley area though he was not on duty at the match. After consulting with the two officers originally at the Welfare Ground, he said: “A fair and friendly approach failed and public disorder offences continued to be committed. Then the firm approach was adopted and arrests made.” In reply to a subsequent letter, Inspector Broadhead said that the anti-stab jackets and batons were standard issue and confirmed that he would apply the same procedures at the largest venue in his region, Huddersfield Town. I had also asked what the police thought of the Emley player who, five yards from the dead ball line, had said to the ref, “What the fuck did you give that for?” His response was: “Might I suggest that the alleged foul language from certain players was not heard by the officers as a result of the swearing etc coming from those who were arrested.” Two officers were standing ten yards from the player. Boston United might have a big away support for a team at our level, but we’re not that loud.

So, if swearing at the match is going to be treated as a public order offence, are we going to get the consistency in decision making so beloved of football pundits? Can the hundreds of Sheffield Wednesday fans heard singing, “Vinnie Jones is a wanker,” live on TV recently expect to be arrested next time they do it? I don’t know about you, but I was imagining rather different priorities for the 5,000 new police officers we’ve been promised after the General Election.

Perhaps the FA advice will be enforced as at Molineux where fans and stewards combine to eject the swearers. Either way, as taxpayers and football fans we will be paying for this service.

Don’t get me wrong, I deplore racist chanting and I admit to having been scared when, during an FA Cup tie in October, Bedworth United fans came down to the Boston end, staring meaningfully and singing “We’re the hardest fans in the league”. It’s just that I don’t believe certain words in themselves are automatically offensive – it all depends on the context in which they are used.

But be on the safe side: if you are at the McAlpine Stadium and the Huddersfield Town fans are a bit quiet, be careful how you remind them of this. Use the wrong words and you may end up in court.

From WSC 123 May 1997. What was happening this month

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