English football and fans behavior – the big picture
Football is the most popular sport and leisure pastime and has been so for decades. (1) There are football clubs in most towns and cities in the UK and more than 11 million people play the game in England. (2) Football clubs help invest and develop local communities and promote keeping active and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
It is a common occurrence for regular rail travelers of all ages to bump into numerous colourfully dressed fans, all making their way to their match of the day together. Meeting football match attendees on public transport is especially likely all over the UK, if venturing out near to the home of the most popular clubs and stadiums, such as Wembley in north west London. Most people who head off to support their favorite teams are friendly and positive and are enjoying a fine day out appropriately.
Some English football clubs have millions of members, who often pay ticket prices of between 30 pounds for ordinary English club matches and often 100 to 300 pounds or more for the final games of a Premier league championship. Sports stadiums regularly seat an audience of around 30,000 attendees. (3)
Frequently clans of football enthusiasts from a specific region travel together to play ‘away’ at a different field in the UK. This may mean that in addition to their stadium seat tickets, fans are buying expensive return rail tickets of up to 100 pounds or more and spending a few hours each way traversing the country, to watch their chosen players win or lose their game.
This journey to the event location and back, then becomes a significant part of the day out for the mostly men and sometimes also women and children. They all want to return home celebrating their club’s success over the sporting opposition.
It is not unusual to see and hear fans congregating and traveling in a crowd together, often singing their favourite team’s songs, mostly in a high-spirited fashion. Both historically and today, rail operators work with football organisations to arrange extra services to accommodate hundreds of these keen sporting people planning to arrive at the same time, to get to their cross-country destinations conveniently. (4)
The problem of unruly fans on the rails: in the past and today
Since Roman times began, some gentlemen, adolescents and occasionally women are susceptible to forgetting their usual manners, as they become carried away by the adrenaline created by the unpredictable outcome of an important competitive event.
More recently in 1985, after a particularly nasty series of incidents involving English football hooliganism internationally, the football league in England banned drinking at matches.
Since the pandemic, generally public transport passengers in the UK have become more considerate and kinder to each other. Everyone in the UK experienced the same sort of social distancing and government restrictions together. However, some soccer fans still spoil it for the rest, by being inconsiderate and bad mouthed, behaving in a way that gained British fans a really negative international reputation in the ‘bad old days’ of the 1970’s and 1980’s.
This anti-social problem is not isolated to London, Sussex, Hampshire and the south east of England. It is not just Brighton or Arsenal fans (for example below) that can be rowdy, as the recent national newspaper and government reports show.
In the past decade or two, more than once, myself and my friends have had the unfortunate experience of being in the same place as a wave of hollering Arsenal fans racing to their game like a blue army on their way to battle. Although the individual fans for the most part are just exuberantly and energetically strolling and chanting along, the experience all together in dozens for the unsuspecting passerby is unpredictable, unsettling and memorable for all the wrong reasons.
Mostly (but not always) men of all ages joke and call out loudly to each other, as they jostle along merrily, sometimes but not always being sensitive to the space other public space users need. It seems that when several club members get together for an exciting match day, they forget to demonstrate the usual courteous manors and civilized behavior that nearly all British residents and overseas visitors are happy to observe at all other times, whilst walking down our streets and traveling on the rail network.
Every year there are thousands of polite and considerate football spectators are using the rail service. Often parents are setting a great example of sportsmanship to their children during a special day out. However, there are ‘packs’ of more rebellious supporters can easily ‘get carried away’ and ruin an otherwise pleasant journey for others.
These other people in the same carriage can include commuters, young families, women, young people, people traveling alone, those who don’t speak English well, retired folk and more vulnerable people and also those with special needs. Many disabled and more vulnerable citizens already find traveling on public transport very challenging indeed and they don’t need any extra hassle on their journeys.
Intimidating Behavior at Gatwick
Earlier this spring, on a cool Saturday late afternoon at Gatwick airport rail station, at least a dozen male fans exchanged heated words with community police officers and railway staff, who were trying to keep the peace. This rail security team were becoming increasingly high tempered themselves. Officers were attempting to make sure members of the public were not upset or harmed by the inappropriate and unruly football fans. The shouting and simultaneous bouncing about that the pack of Brighton supporters were performing, was along the edge of one of the busy airport rail station platforms, that is used by millions of people of all ages and physical abilities, every year.
After some minutes had passed a couple of the officers had to shout and threaten the rather unruly jostling pack of mainly male supporters with serious consequences if they did not behave. A transport police caution for ‘breach of the peace’ could have possibly been on the cards, as the supporters were making it difficult for local and international travelers, that were not interested in the match, to stand on the platform and wait for their train peacefully and safely. (5)
There were several minutes of an aggressive testosterone fueled atmosphere which was punctuated with shouts and masculine jumping about and singing out at the top of their voices. The overexcited football followers felt free to let off their internal steam, probably built up over several days, in their stressful modern lives.
Women on the concourse at Gatwick were looking worried about getting onto the Brighton train with these supporters and were being reassured by the security wardens. Some female passengers making their journeys on their own might have felt intimidated and nervous about getting on their connecting train arriving at Gatwick. This is because there would not necessarily be any staff overseeing the orderly behavior of all the passengers in their train carriage. “Don’t worry” said the community officer reassuringly to the ladies trying to share the platform with the wild crew traveling south west “they will be fine when they settle down on their train to Brighton”.
Fortunately for myself, as an individual female traveling through the Sussex airport rail station on that occasion, after an event in London, I was not going towards Brighton by train that day. I was very relieved when the supporters departed in their carriages, going in the other direction.
The luminous tabards and black uniforms of half a dozen burly officials is not what rail users would expect on a normal spring weekend teatime ordinarily. The whole scene was loud, confusing and unnerving for normal folk quietly trying to get on with their day.
Inconvenient public facilities prioritise queuing fans
The process of managing high numbers of football fans and their journeys can be disruptive to other passengers’ journeys if perhaps, inadvertently.
At Brighton station train operations managers keen to ‘divide and conquer’ the sporty ‘beautiful game’ followers design a separate route from the rest of their customers. This spring the south coast railway personnel carefully set up a massive cordoned off zone made of metal barriers in advance of a match. The temporary lanes were arranged to separate and guide the boisterous revelers to the right platforms for their journeys.
Consequentially, on the 19th of March the female members of the public who wished to use the women’s toilet facilities had to exit onto the station concourse through the ticket barriers, then leave the station through the grand main entrance and walk around the outside to re-enter the early Victorian station a different way and then pass through a gap in the barrier channeled side entrance, which all took several minutes to navigate unexpectedly.
This is an example of good intentions by railway managers to manage football fans that had a detrimental effect on the journeys of other rail users.
Why is anti-social behavior still occurring on the railways?
To some degree the ‘high jinks and over excited behavior is tolerated from other rail users and railway staff who seem ‘used’ to this often alcohol infused rowdiness. We know from the latest brain development studies that the ‘upstairs brain’ is not fully formed until around the age of 25. Even taking into consideration the understandably immature behavior of adolescent young people, it is still surprising that some grown adults that think it is acceptable to create such an unpleasant and abrasive scene. This is a rare occurrence but it is not uncommon. (6)
However, enjoying alcoholic beverages is still possible when traveling by rail in south east England. It is perhaps a significant factor that boisterous antics and loud chanting can be observed when in the vicinity of football match goers. Some fans get ready to make the most of an event in the same way that many people enjoy a few drinks at home before a big night out on the town, even if that means an alcoholic liquid breakfast. Alcohol affects the brain and can make drinkers behave in an out of character, sometimes irrational way and often with a lack of physical coordination.
In 2015 Paul Crowther Chief Constable of the English Rail Transport Police held a summit to discuss strategies for eliminating the problem of ‘hooligans’ who, according to the Evening Standard, were terrorising train passengers and Crowther talked about addressing the “casual thuggery” (7) Nearly a decade later this issue is still continuing to adversely affect non-football match attending citizens days out by rail.
In 2016 retired Law Enforcement Officer and Chief Superintendent Michael Layton QPM literally wrote the book about the ‘bad old days’ of football hooliganism in the UK and compiled a social history of the unfortunate legacy of those who misbehave on the way to the game, from the viewpoint of transport police officers who devoted their careers to bravely keeping law and order on the railways. (8)
In April 2022 the Daily Mail reported how a Portsmouth football club fan riled up by a mob of 20 supporters head butted and knocked out a rival Southampton fan, who was also on Basingstoke station in Hampshire but traveling individually. The violent young man was prosecuted and given a 6-month electronic curfew and a 14-month suspended sentence by the judge who was advised by the defense that the accused had been high on ‘tribalism’ drink and drugs, at the time of the shockingly awful incident. (9)
Also, at the beginning of April 2022 The Express reported that passengers were informed by their onboard train manager that their train was going back to the departure station Wolverhampton as there were “football fans on the track” A man was then arrested after unnecessary Saturday night violence broke out between rival clubs Wolves and Aston Villa and consequently train services across the region were disrupted. (10)
Online newspaper The Daily Record described how on the 12th March 2023 in Scotland a large group of “Feuding football fans were caught on camera in a vicious brawl outside a train station after Hearts faced off against Celtic at Tynecastle on Saturday afternoon.” Reporter Jacob Farr describes how “police officers can be seen in the midst of the brawl.” trying to restore some calm and peace. (11)
Annual UK government figures released in September 2022 show that there were 2198 football related arrests across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland plus an additional 140 ‘Schedule 1’ football-related arrests by British Transport Police (BTP) during the 2021 to 2022 season. (12)
2198 arrests is within 10 per cent of the figures recorded in the 2011 to 2012 season. This data shows that despite the pandemic and all the investment in peaceful football match attendance basically nothing has changed in a decade. This is despite an encouraging downward trend after 2011 where it looked like annual arrests were significantly declining year on year. (13)
More personal accountability and effective management is needed
With millions of passengers travelling by rail every year it is inevitable that there are sometimes incidents and unpleasant behavior that may offend others, at times. Football clubs and rail operators need to work together to ensure that fans can travel happily and efficiently to their destination in time for their match and that they are not able to get drunk and disorderly during their clubs’ games. At the same time rail operators and football club managers need to take action and create better systems to ensure that ordinary commuters are not intimidated or inconvenienced should their paths cross with the football supporters enroute, before or after a football game.
It is also a priority to make sure that the rail services ferrying the fans are managed correctly to make sure both journeys and the facilities all customers expect are safe, calm and pleasant for all passengers of all ages. The strategy of maximizing profits and increasing technology and reducing the actual physical members of staff (for example electronic ticket offices) does nothing to make those who are more likely to be picked on by over exhilarated or inebriated ruffians, feel safer on the railways.
There is already CCTV on stations and platforms and most trains and perhaps there is an argument that this needs to be extended to all train carriages to record any deter any impolite or upsetting incidents. However, unidentified video footage doesn’t seem to deter fans high on adrenaline and beer from misbehaving in the first place.
An identity checked personal seat booking service like when traveling with an airline may be one way to ensure more personally accountable good behavior on match days, all across the network. Voluntary and paid ‘supervisors’ could be required to travel with fans on specific services related to a match day fixture that is selected by managers in advance.
Similarly, those attending football matches could be required to submit more contact and identity information when purchasing a ticket to enable transport security staff to track anyone causing any trouble on their travel to or from their game. People who are unable to travel to a football match and back without causing offense to other travelers should not be sold tickets or a set period of time, which would also deter those considering ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ and joining in with any inappropriate behavior whilst using the rail network.
(1) ‘Which Sports Do Brits Love the Most?’ Anna Fleck, Statista website, 5 Sep 2022 ‘Which Sports Do Brits Love the Most?’ Anna Fleck, Statista
(2) ‘Over 11 million people can’t be wrong’ Football Association, 11 June 2015 ‘Over 11 million people can’t be wrong’ Football Association
(3) ‘English Premier League Tickets’ SeatPick.com ticket sales website, 18 April 2023 ‘English Premier League Tickets’ SeatPick.com ticket sales website
(4) ‘Off the rails ~ The broken relationship between football fans and train travel’ Tom Hocking, When Saturday Comes, The Half Decent Football Magazine, June 2013 ‘Off the rails The broken relationship between football fans and train travel’ Tom Hocking, When Saturday Comes, The Half Decent Football Magazine
(5) ‘Breach of the Peace’ Green and Black Cross, legal support website, 18 April 2023 ‘Breach of the Peace’ Green and Black Cross, legal support website
(6) ‘Is 25 the new cut off point for adulthood?’ BBC News 13 September 2013 ‘Is 25 the new cut off point for adulthood?’ BBC News
(7) ‘Football hooligans are terrorising train passengers every week says British Transport chief’ Evening Standard, Alexandra Rucki, 17 April 2015 ‘Football hooligans are terrorising train passengers every week says British Transport chief’ Evening Standard, Alexandra Rucki
(8) Tracking the Hooligans: The History of Football Violence on the UK Rail Network’ Michael Layton and Alan Pacey’ Amazon Books 15 Jan 2016 ‘Tracking the Hooligans: The History of Football Violence on the UK Rail Network’ Michael Layton and Alan Pacey’ Amazon Books
LinkedIn review ‘Tracking the Hooligans: The History of Football Violence on the UK Rail Network’ Michael Layton and Alan Pacey’ LinkedIn review ‘Tracking the Hooligans: The History of Football Violence on the UK Rail Network’ Michael Layton and Alan Pacey’
(9) ‘Cocaine-fuelled football thug, 21, who head-butted rival fan and knocked him unconscious at train station in ‘unprovoked piece of mob violence’ is spared jail’ Jacob Thornburn, Daily Mail, 1 April 2022 ‘Cocaine-fuelled football thug, 21, who head-butted rival fan and knocked him unconscious at train station in ‘unprovoked piece of mob violence’ is spared jail’ Jacob Thornburn, Daily Mail
(10) Man arrested after football-related violence causes train chaos in Wolverhampton’ Adam Smith, Crime, Express, 4 April 2022 ‘Man arrested after football-related violence causes train chaos in Wolverhampton’ Adam Smith, Crime, Express
(11) ‘Feuding football fans brawl outside Scots train station after cup match’ Jacob Farr and Kaitlin Easton, Daily Record, 12 March 2023 ‘Feuding football fans brawl outside Scots train station after cup match’ Jacob Farr and Kaitlin Easton, Daily Record
(12) ‘Football-related arrests and banning orders, England and Wales: 2021 to 2022 season’ Gov.UK, 22 September 2022 ‘Football-related arrests and banning orders, England and Wales: 2021 to 2022 season’ Gov.UK
(13) ‘Drinking in seats at football grounds could be reinstated as part of a fan-led review into the game’ Sky Sports Football, Friday 24 September 2021 (13) ‘Drinking in seats at football grounds could be reinstated as part of a fan-led review into the game’ Sky Sports Football
(14) ‘The booze ban on train beware what happens next’ Mark Smith, The Herald, 10 March 2023 ‘The booze ban on train beware what happens next’ Mark Smith, The Herald
(15) ‘Bringing alcohol onboard’ West Midlands Railway website, 22 April 2023 ‘Bringing alcohol onboard’ West Midlands Railway website