Sam Wallace: Attack on Chris Kirkland horrific – but let's keep some perspective
When he reflects on his attack on Chris Kirkland at Hillsborough on Friday, the Leeds United fan in question might wonder why he picked the night the Sky Sports HD cameras were in town – capable of reading the "LUFC" tattoo on his neck, never mind capturing his grinning face.
Violent, cowardly and thuggish? Undoubtedly, but not exactly the Professor Moriarty of football-related crime, is he? And as for his fellow pitch invaders, one of them – you will have to refer back to the video clip for this one – appears to be, for reasons best known to himself, fighting with the goal net.
Kirkland, thankfully, was not seriously injured. As for his assailant, widely named in newspapers and on social media there is a good chance he will be given a custodial sentence. His banning order from football grounds will be so long there is even a chance Leeds might be back in the Premier League by the time he is permitted legally to watch them in person.
If he is found guilty of assault, encroachment on the pitch, encouraging others to follow him – and the distinct possibility that he may have breached an existing banning order – it will be a long rap sheet. Gloucestershire police made an arrest yesterday.
It was appalling to watch. He deserves to be punished. But what about the wisdom of the wider clamour for a crackdown and for the police and the courts to get tough with football fans?
The problem with an incident as regrettable as the one at Hillsborough is that it often provokes a sharp lurch to the right, when it comes to attitudes towards football's so-called "problem" and demands more of police and courts. Yet the legislation introduced around a decade ago to deter football disorder is already draconian and civil liberties groups have asked serious questions about the measures' ethical basis.
The football banning order (FBO) remains the cornerstone of football policing and the Football (Disorder) Act of 2000 means that a fan does not necessarily need to have a criminal conviction in order to be served one. The police can apply to a court for an FBO on the basis that they have evidence that the individual is considered likely to cause disorder around a match.
There are around 3,000 FBOs currently in place, of which 500 are "on complaint", or for those who have not been convicted of an offence. FBOs typically include a ban from an exclusion zone around an individual's home ground, a ban from all grounds in the country and the requirement to surrender one's passport while England are playing abroad. FBOs last a minimum of three years.
The concern among fans' groups, including the Football Supporters' Federation (FSF), is that police are applying for banning orders on relatively low-level public order offences. While discretion is used by the police, that might include swearing at a ground. Or gesturing at opposing fans. Entering a ground drunk can trigger an arrest, and potentially an FBO. And before the clubs grab the moral high ground, it should be pointed out that they all serve alcohol.
In general, there is little sympathy for football supporters or a desire to hear about what they regard as maltreatment. One only needs to witness the struggle of the families of victims of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster for justice to recognise that and Friday's incident at the same ground will not help.
Four years ago, more than 80 Stoke City fans were rounded up by Greater Manchester Police (GMP) under Section 27 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act– designed to break up drunken groups – and transported back home without watching their team play at Old Trafford. They were held for four hours, placed on coaches with no toilets and told by police that they had to urinate in paper cups. They sued GMP with the help of FSF.
The most recent Home Office statistics for football-related disorder, for the 2010-2011 season, reported a total of 3,089 arrests out of an estimated total attendance of 37m. That is, as the Home Office itself points out, less than 0.01 per cent of all supporters or one arrest for every 12,249 tickets sold. It was 9 per cent down on the 2009-2010 season.
Yet even now, the authorities continue to video innocent supporters watching games, a practice that understandably upsets many supporters. Police are likely to take your name if you are ejected for persistent standing or having a ticket in the wrong section of a ground, even though these are not criminal offences.
There has also been the introduction of "bubble matches", the term used to describe the style of policing for games identified as being at high-risk of disorder. Away supporters are given no alternative but to collect their tickets at a designated location and be bussed in and out en masse under police supervision, as will be the case for the Burnley v Blackburn Rovers, the east Lancashire derby, next month.
It should be noted that some supporters prefer the peace of mind that "bubble match" policing – implemented, for example, for the South Coast derby last year – gives them. Others regard it as another liberty removed from the well-behaved, blameless football supporter.
Policing itself can make a huge difference. Last month, Manchester City supporters following their team in Madrid for the Champions League game at the Bernabeu reported unprovoked baton charges from Spanish police. Michael Slater, the Charlton Athletic chairman and a City fan, was knocked unconscious in the attack.
The leading academic research on football disorder has found conclusively that the style of policing is fundamental to the behaviour of large groups of fans. Dr Geoff Pearson's analysis of Portugal's two separate forces policing Euro 2004 in very different ways – and getting very different results – demonstrates the benefit of a low-key approach that does not legitimise a violent reaction in the minds of the crowd.
Unfortunately, the benefits of that research, as well as the questions that have been raised about the use of some of the legislation against supporters, are ignored when something as shocking as Friday night's incident occurs. It would be wrong to say that fans have not attacked players before – sadly, they have – but the statistics tell us that it is very rare.
What is not in doubt is that the punishment for Kirkland's assailant will be more severe for him having committed the offence on a football pitch than had he done so on the street. Dave Jones, the Sheffield Wednesday manager, called on fans to "police" themselves but, given how quickly Kirkland's attacker's identity was circulated, that appears to be exactly what happened.
For the vast majority of Leeds fans, and the wider football supporter fraternity, appalled by the actions of one of their number, attending games is something they do lawfully. Keeping the balance between maintaining the peace and people's rights is not easy, and there really is no call for the lines to be blurred any further.
It would help if Rio made his stance clear
Leaving aside the conflicting positions of Rio Ferdinand and Sir Alex Ferguson on the Kick It Out T-shirt, a simple question: what exactly are Ferdinand's views on the John Terry saga?
So far we have had a series of tweets loaded with double meaning and a refusal to wear a T-shirt. Understandably, Ferdinand appears to be upset about certain things but it would help if he was specific. The treatment of his brother Anton? The verdict of Westminster magistrates' court? The regulatory commission's four-game ban for Terry? The Kick It Out campaign? His own fine for the "choc ice" tweet? All the above and more?
In the year that has passed there has been a criminal case, lasting one week, and a detailed 63-page commission report into the incident, even before you get into all the extraneous factors. Now the process is at an end it would be useful if Rio would say, with clarity, what he feels was wrong. The second-guessing does not help anyone.