Security blanket

While the Premiership clubs can afford costly measures to keep hooliganism out of their stadiums, the price is being paid lower down the leagues and out of sight of the camera. Mark Rowe reports

Graham Hodgetts has the lives of an admittedly less than full Villa Park in his hands. In the control room under a stand roof he stands with his shirt sleeves rolled up, spectacles dangling from his right hand. As Villa’s safety officer – all league clubs have one – he looks calm, but then he was a police officer for 30 years, retiring as superintendent. Leeds are visiting on a January midweek night. There are about a dozen people in the control room, half of them uniformed officers, looking at a dozen CCTV monitors and taking most interest in the images of fans on their feet at the back of a stand, well guarded by police and stewards.

Football grounds on match days are among the most heavily CCTV-mon­itored places in the UK, for safety rea­sons as much as security. As we know from bitter experience, fatal crushes and fires can develop in minutes. Higher up the leagues, and at clubs with a history of crowd problems, surveillance inside the ground has become pervasive. Charlton Athletic, for example, have 28 CCTV cameras, enough to cover every seat with at least one camera. That’s par for the course– Millwall have 37.

Charlton also use 350 stewards, even though their safety certifcate only specifies 200. The firm with Man­ Utd’s security contract, Special Pro­jects Security, is headed by ex-SAS men whose staff have a further education qualification in football stewarding (though this has not prevented them becoming highly unpopular with some fans). The main problem with such high levels of security at big clubs, however, is that they are pushing hooliganism outside the grounds and into the lower divisions – even into non-League football.

The National Criminal Intelligence Ser­vice reported a fall in arrests to 3,138 in 1999-2000 – down from 3,341 the pre­vious season. However, the NCIS call­ed arrests an “unreliable indicator” and for police to cast doubt on their own statistics says it all. The breakdown by division – 1,461 at Premiership clubs, 831 in the First Division, 586 in the Second, 259 in the Third – gives another wrong impression.

Millwall topped the Second Division list with 102, compared with 73 the year before. Does that mean Millwall became 39 per cent more unruly? No, because the club operates a zero tolerance policy against racist chanting. More people are arrested there because they take the problem more seriously, even to the extent of using covert sound recording equipment. Their sec­urity adviser Ken Chapman explains: “When we get complaints or we recognise there is a problem, particularly with indecent and racist chanting, we can record to bring the best evidence to the court. Although we had a lot of stick about civil liberties, it ensures we get the right people. We don’t force people to come to Mill­wall, but we want our fans to know they aren’t going to be subject to indecent and racist abuse. That is, in my opinion, a problem not addressed by clubs.”

Bigger clubs have easier options. Chapman points to Chelsea, the second worst Premier League club for arrests in 1999-2000, with 168 (Sunderland, with 231, were the worst). Few of those 168 were inside the ground: “Because there’s a waiting list for season tickets you have the ultimate sanction – you can take the season ticket away and give it to someone else. Most Premiership grounds are sold out, week in, week out. In the lower leagues you don’t have that luxury.”

The NCIS website has a list of 83 “incidents” from the 1999-2000 season. Most came at train stations and pubs. The names that keep cropping up are not Premiership clubs but the likes of Rotherham, Stoke , Wigan, Cardiff and Swansea. Violence has trickled into the divisions without CCTV or many stewards. In January, Bishop Auckland fans stopped the FA Trophy game at Burton Albion and in the Dr Martens East Division, Grantham fans set off flares and wrecked fencing at Billericay. Non-League clubs can­not afford paid, trained stewards, and police on match days are already stretched – at the Burton disturbance, police had to be drafted in from Stoke City’s game, 30 miles away.

What’s more, the stewards used by cash-strapped lower division clubs are likely to do other security-related jobs, such as on pubs and club doors, when they are not on football duty. In smaller towns they are likely to come across the same people at football grounds as in the clubs a few hours later. This has led fans of some lower division clubs to complain that stewards are far more likely to take offence at the behaviour of the away fans than those of the home club.

Premiership clubs can argue that they have done their bit; they are delivering a more or less hooligan-free, TV-friendly product. The problem is that, as ever, the authorities cannot stop young men getting drunk and fighting. It’s just that now they are increasingly doing it further away from the media spotlight.

From WSC 172 June 2001. What was happening this month