5 January ~ The Home Office and the police are competing with each other to congratulate themselves on the record low for arrests at football grounds last season. But it is the usual story of lies, damned lies and statistics. In the 2010-11 season, 3,089 people were arrested – a fall of 302 compared to the previous season and a record low since records began in the 1984-85 season. The authorities say football banning orders are working. The number of people banned also dropped, down to 3,173 from the previous year's 3,248.
A Home Office minister, Lord Henley, called the policing of football "a real British success story". Andy Holt, of South Yorkshire police, said: “Over the past two decades the UK has made steady progress in reducing football-related violence and disorder. The service has worked hard with football clubs and supporters' associations to ensure genuine fans can attend games without incident. It is reassuring the figures reflect that a very small minority of fans have come to police notice.”
However, like all measurements in the criminal justice system, it is dangerous to assume a big number equals a big problem. Grimsby Town, of the Conference, have 79 banning orders, which is more than all but three Premier League clubs – Chelsea with 105, Manchester United with 101 and Newcastle United with 98. The banned fans at Grimsby represent a far larger proportion of their gate – and a loss of income to the club – than at Old Trafford. But are we to believe that Grimsby is – or was, until the bans – an especially dangerous place to visit?
There is also the question of how to define a fan. Football safety officers are aware of the phenomenon of trouble-makers from big city clubs spending their spare Saturdays at lower League or non-League grounds, where CCTV footage is poor or absent, and stewards are either old gents or teenagers. There is also the issue of what defines a football-related offence. Is an offence football-related if it takes places on a train, in a pub, at a motorway service station, or before or after a match? It depends on who puts in the data.
Thanks to clearer and more searchable CCTV, football stadiums are relatively easy to police, certainly by comparison with high streets. Ironically, a friendly at Wembley in August was cancelled because of riots in London. On the same night, a Carling Cup derby between Notts County and Nottingham Forest went ahead with 23,000 law-abiding fans, in a city where a police station was firebombed.
Sectarian chants are thought to be such a grave problem at matches between Celtic and Rangers that the ruling Scottish Nationalists brought in anti-bigotry legislation in December. Rangers fans were responsible for the most serious football-related disorder in years, in Manchester city centre on the night of the 2008 UEFA Cup final. Yet only 20 Rangers and Celtic fans are subject to bans.
Of the 962 new banning orders imposed on fans in 2011, 346 were on fans of Premier League clubs, but only one was given to a fan of an Old Firm club (Celtic). While that total of arrests fell last year, the number for "racist or indecent chanting" went up very slightly, from 31 to 43. Enforcing the chant law is likely to prove quite a task for Scottish police and stadium stewards. However much the law changes the atmosphere in the grounds, the proof of its effectiveness won't necessarily lie in the statistics trumpeted by the police and government. Mark Rowe