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football fans and the law   After the Act?
  The (re)construction and regulation of football fandom

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abstract - introduction - Govt and regulation - Criminal Justice Act - Other CJA provisions - Conclusion

Conservative Governments and Football Regulation:

It was essentially the footballing disasters of the decade that led to calls for and subsequent increased regulation of the game. Legislation was promoted in a number of distinct areas covering the availability of alcohol at matches, the safety of grounds and the question of membership schemes.

The seeming inexorable rise of the football hooligan culture throughout the 1970's and 1980's was also a strong feature that provoked Government action though it was far from clear how this burgeoning problem could be contained; one solution proposed by Chelsea Chairman, Ken Bates, of electrified fences was however rejected (18).


The late 1970's saw an added political dimension to the hooliganism problem linked to the rise of far right groups such as the National Front and the more hardline British Movement. As Murray has pointed out:

By the late 1970's, racist and right wing groups such as the National Front were attaching themselves to hooligans, cashing in on the abuse of black players who were then beginning to appear regularly in English teams.

Chelsea, West Ham and Leeds United who were among the first teams to field black players, achieved an unenviable reputation for racism, to the horror of their more respectable fans, but few top teams were immune.(19)

Football is still a potential battle ground for political groups. The recent riot at the Eire v England international in Dublin which caused the abandonment of the game was credited to Combat 18; a far right organisation whose number represents the 1st (A) and 8th (H) letters of the alphabet representing Adolf Hitler's initials.


This rise of right wing groups has been mirrored by the emergence of anti fascist football supporter's groups, for example Manchester United has a group of anti fascist fans who have developed their own fanzine, Red Attitude. It is interesting that this political development cuts across more traditional fan loyalties.(20)

The Prime Minister's interest in tackling the problems of football was sparked by a riot at Luton Town football club involving Millwall supporters. This incident also led to Luton Town adopting a home members only scheme for fans which disbarred away fans from attendance.(21)

The Government's immediate response was to establish a 'war cabinet' on football hooliganism. The whole question of who can attend matches and whether it should be limited to home supporters or a smaller sub group of 'members' was one of the most controversial issues.


The Interim Report of Mr Justice Popplewell's Committee considered that unless the hooligan problem was addressed, 'football may not be able to continue in its present form much longer'. Accordingly it suggested that a membership scheme could contribute to the solution; Experience will no doubt show what in practice is the best scheme to retain the desirable and exclude the undesirable therefore recombined that urgent consideration be given by football clubs in England and Wales to introducing a membership system so as to exclude visiting fans.(22)

The Popplewell Committee was originally created to investigate two incidents at English grounds that occurred on May 11th 1985. These were the fire at Bradford City in which 56 people died and a riot at the Birmingham City v Leeds United match (described by Popplewell as more like 'the Battle of Agincourt than a football match') in which a fifteen year old youth died when a wall collapsed.

Football's problems became even more acute less than three weeks later following the violence at the European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus at the Heysel stadium in Brussels that led to the death of 39 people. Popplewell's brief was determined to be wide enough to 'allow any lessons learnt from Brussels to be taken into account' (23).


The Government's response to these events was swift not even awaiting the interim report from Popplewell before introducing measures to deal immediately with the perceived contribution of alcohol to the problem;

First we shall introduce as soon as possible legislation similar to that contained in the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980.

That Act makes it an offence to be drunk or to possess alcohol on football coaches, on entry to grounds and in most areas of is our intention to have this legislation on the statute book by the summer recess, in time for the coming football season.

Second, we shall proceed next session with the legislation envisaged in the Government's White Paper on the review of public order...The proposals on assemblies in the open air will considerably strengthen the powers available to the police to guard against the risk of disorder.(24)

During the second reading in the House of Commons even Leon Brittan (Secretary of State for the Home Department) noted that 'the time scale in which the House is invited to approve the Bill is, I recognise, shorter than the House would normally expect. I regret that should be necessary.


The Government's intention is that the Bill's provisions should be in force before the start of the next football season'.(25) At that point the beginning of the football season was merely six weeks away.

The irony with this particular piece of legislation was that it was initiated because of the events in May yet at all three of these games no alcohol could be purchased.

The major problem is not consumption of alcohol at the ground but before matches, so in many ways it is preferable to get the supporters into the ground earlier, avoiding the situation where fans arrive, in numbers, close to kick off.(26)

Other suggested solutions to the alcohol problem involve closing bars in the vicinity of grounds and altering match times to earlier in the day, or even moving games to a Sunday.


The final report of the Popplewell Committee observed that the financial effect on clubs through lost revenue in Executive Boxes was very serious, Manchester United's loss of income was projected at over £500,000. The Act was amended through the Public Order Act 1986 to establish 'a new regime for the sale and possession of alcohol in executive boxes and restaurants'.

Commenting on the changes Tom Pendry M.P. pointed out that the original provisions had been not properly thought out;

It is no secret that on the Second Reading of the Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Act, I said that I felt that both the Government and my Front bench had overreacted to the terrible tragedies at Brussels, Birmingham and Luton....

Unfortunately the flow of money from executive box holder, which would enable clubs to do all the things that the Prime Minister and the Minister of State wanted, including improving safety standards, was drying up fast (27)

The Act sought to regulate the link between football and drinking and therefore provide another attack on hooliganism, however as Taylor pointed out drink was not a 'major factor' for the group of 'serious hooligans'.

More problematic is the application of the provisions that render it unlawful to enter, or try to enter a designated sports event whilst drunk.

If the officer arrests the fan s/he will be away from their position for some time whilst the fan is processed. Taylor observed that whilst arrests were the norm in Scotland whilst in England the police tend to rely on only ejecting fans.


During 1985 and 1986 Ministers met with the football authorities to obtain their agreement for a number of wide ranging initiatives such as Closed Circuit television and family areas within the grounds.

Mrs Thatcher met with the Chairman of the Football Association and the President of the Football League in July 1988 following which a working party was established.

The difficulty for the football authorities was that the Government was committed to a scheme despite the opposition of the League and Association; The Prime Minister said that the Government would bring forward proposals for legislation to give statutory backing to the national membership scheme.

Having made their position clear the President of the Football league and the Chairman of the Football Association recognised the Government's commitment to the introduction of a national membership scheme and undertook to cooperate with the Government in considering the details of the scheme (28).

The outcome of the Government's deliberations was the Football Spectators Act 1989 which provided the framework for a national membership scheme under the auspices of The Football Membership Authority.


In addition Part I of the Act also established a body, The Football Licensing Authority, to be responsible for licensing grounds. However the Bill was overtaken by events with the tragedy at Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough ground when during an FA Cup semi-final match on 15th April 1989 ninety five Liverpool fans were crushed to death in the Leppings Lane end of the ground.

On the 17 April 1989 Douglas Hurd (Secretary of State for the Home Department) expressed his deepest sympathies to the families of those that had died or who were injured or fighting for their lives before adding that Lord Justice Taylor had been asked to chair an inquiry into the disaster 'to inquire into the events at Sheffield Wednesday football ground and to make recommendations about the needs of crowd control and safety at sports grounds'.

Hurd posited that notwithstanding Lord Justice Taylor's involvement:...we need also to take a wider view. The Government believe that the future of football in this country lies in a national membership scheme in designated grounds and now, it seems, also in providing all-seated accommodation at major football clubs.

This would involve the disappearance of terraces at those grounds. It might also involve amendments to strengthen the Football Spectators Bill so that its provision for the licensing of grounds matched this concept. We shall be considering these matters urgently.(29)

However whilst the Taylor Committee was still hearing evidence Parliament was debating a Bill ( it was delayed for two months) that would have a profound effect on some of the very issues that Taylor was examining. This disturbed some members in both houses;


The events of Hillsborough on that dreadful day in April cast shadows far and wide and into the hearts and minds of the whole nation.

To seek to progress this Bill in the midst of such awful, horrific and unbearable tragedy for the bereaved, the injured, the emotionally damaged, the clubs, the players and the cities of Sheffield and Liverpool seems to be to be an act of unspeakable obscenity.

To intrude Parliament and Parliamentarians into such enormous, unbearable grief is an exercise of monumental insensitivity.

To do so demands an imperative of overriding priority. It demands progress with this Bill at a time when the evidence of what happened on that awful day has still to be gathered, let alone evaluated. It places a priority on speed before all else. (30)


In the Commons dissent over the timing of the consideration of the Bill extended into the Conservative ranks:

The fact is that the Government want the Bill, willy nilly.

We shall force through a Bill for a national scheme in a relatively short time, despite the reservations of many of those who are affected, including Conservative Members as well as Opposition Members who know something about football.

I find it difficult to understand why we need to pass the Bill at this time. The argument is that, if the Bill is not passed now, 12 months will be lost. We are already committed to debating Lord Justice Taylor's conclusions although we have not had an assurance that they will be taken into account.


That is a grave weakness in what has been said so far by Ministers...We should base our views on the conclusions and on the work that we can do between then and now, not on what we think at this moment.(31)

Despite many reservations the Bill was passed, however the whole question of the membership scheme was rendered obsolete by Taylor's final report;I have grave doubts about the feasibility of the national membership scheme and serious misgivings about its likely impact on safety.

I also have grave doubts about the chances of its achieving its purposes and am very anxious about its potential impact on police commitments and control of spectators. For these reasons, I cannot support the implementation of Part I of the Act.(32)

Accordingly Part I was not implemented, Taylor was concerned that the technology would not prove adequate which would have serious safety implications. Had the Government waited the 6 months before the final report this ill thought out provision would have been avoided.


Taylor's influence was not yet spent. The Football Offences Act 1991 sought to implement the Taylor recommendation that racist and obscene chanting should be made a separate offence.

His concern was that the Public Order Act 1986 would not adequately cover incidents involving chanting of a racist nature as it required that there be an identifiable victim.

However notwithstanding that this was undoubtedly a progressive step, it was still centred upon the potential risk to public order rather than the social unacceptability of racism: Against that background, it would be a mistake to criminalise a single racialist or indecent remark that might not be widely audible in the ground; to do so would set the threshold for criminal behaviour too low. We wish to prevent group chanting, which is repeated and loud and may spark trouble, and if it occurs, to prosecute and punish the offenders(33).


FOA s3(1) now provides that 'It is an offence to take part at a designated football match in chanting of an indecent or racialist nature.

Whilst this in itself is laudable, there have been problems in that the section is somewhat emasculated by the narrow definition of chanting as contained in the Act, (32) provides that 'chanting means the repeated uttering of any words or sounds in concert with one or more others'.

If, therefore, comments of a racist or indecent nature are made by a single fan rather than one acting in concert with others there is no redress under the Act; a flaw that has not gone unnoticed by the CRE and Police.(34)


Footnotes: 18. Throughout the debates in the House of Commons on the various football related legislation a recurring theme was whether this was a football issue or part of a wider problem of lawlessness. The latter view proffered two solutions one based on a stronger sentencing policy and the other more concerned with social policy. Harry Ewing M.P. who was a Director of Cowdenbeath F.C. pointed out that it was a minority problem 'We had an instance of some trouble towards the end of last season, when a young man was caught climbing a boundary wall during a match. He was made to come back and watch the rest of the game.' Hansard July 3rd, 372.

19. Murray op cit p184.

20. See for example the Militant Labour fanzine 'Reclaim the Game' and the Manchester United anti-fascist fanzine 'Red Attitude'. The latter recently gave its monthly Golden Boot award to a group of Manchester United fans who dealt with one of the Dublin rioters who was himself allegedly an MUFC fan.

21. 'At the end of it, 47 people including 33 police officers had been injured; 700 seats were ripped out of the `Bobbers' family stand by intruding Milwall fans, and damage inside the ground was estimated at £15,000'. The Luton Town Members Scheme Final Report, Williams, Dunning and Murphy ; Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research, University of Leicester 1989, 10.

22. Popplewell 6.48.

23. Hansard 3 June 1985.

24. Hansard (HC) 3 June 1985 Col 21.

25. Hansard (HC) 3 July 1985 Col 333.

26. Evidence was given to the Taylor Committee by the Association of Chief Police Officers that at Manchester United '30,000 people will pass through the turnstiles in just over 20 minutes before kick off'.' Taylor ,421

27. Hansard (HC) 30 April 1986 Col 1058.

28. Football: National Membership Scheme, report of the Minister for Sports Working Party 1988,2.

29. Hansard (HC) 17 April 1989 Col 20.

30. Lord Graham Hansard (HL) 16th June 1989 Col 1647.

31. Mr Jim Lester, Hansard (HC) 27th June 1989 Col 884.

32. Cmnd 962, para 424.

33. Hansard (HC) 19 April 1991 Col 733, per Peter Lloyd (Under Secretary of State for the Home Department)

34. Kick It! p4

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