Football arrests up 50% as missiles rain down ‘in post-covid carnival’

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Young football fans are indulging in a post-Covid carnival that has seen the number of football-related arrests rocket by almost 50 per cent this season.

Football authorities, clubs and police are increasingly concerned about the antisocial behaviour and missile-throwing at matches, which has marred another round of top-flight fixtures and prompted condemnation from Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel, among other managers, players and pundits.

The Football Association has launched an investigation into an incident at Goodison Park, which saw two Aston Villa players hit by a bottle on Saturday as they celebrated their winning goal against Everton. One 19-year-old fan has been arrested and released on conditional bail.

The governing body is also probing events at the game between Southampton against Manchester City, where three fans got onto the pitch and confronted stewards, and a flare was set off.

On Sunday, Chelsea's Antonio Rüdiger was hit by lighters thrown from the Tottenham Hotspur supporters during the Blues' 2-0 win at Stamford Bridge, resulting in two arrests.

These are just the latest incidents. In the first six months of this season, 802 football related arrests have been made – an increase of 47% from 547 arrests in 2019-20.

Antonio Rudiger was seen smiling as he picked up a lighter and threw it back off the pitch

It is the highest number of arrests since the police started collating in season 2015-16.

The increase in crowd trouble is believed to result from of a number of contributory factors, which have their roots in the lockdown imposed during the Covid pandemic, according to Professor Geoff Pearson, an expert in football disorder and policing.

On the one hand, fans have returned to stadiums after an absence of a year-and-a-half and are 'hitting it too hard', and the hiatus in fans at matches means there are a lot of new, young fans, who have come of age during the pandemic.

On the other, Prof Pearson believes police also have to rebuild their intelligence profiles to identify problematic fans and intervene before trouble occurs, which has been the basis of improved policing at matches during the last 30 years.

'We have some changes in fan behaviour because of the lockdown,' said Prof Pearson. 'Fans have been deprived of the collective experience of going to matches with mates, getting drunk, and having a sing song. Actually, fans are hitting it too hard at the moment because they are still excited about being back.

Chelsea defender Rudiger was targeted with a missile by Tottenham fans on Sunday evening

'And they are engaging in this transgressive, carnivalesque behaviour, which can be very challenging.

'Another factor is we have had a big turnover in terms of ticket-holders. It is likely we have a lot of new fans… It may be a lot of these fans still haven't quite learned how they should be behaving, or they are not deterred by the risk of losing a season ticket.'

Sadly, the pandemic has claimed the lives of some older fans, while others have lost jobs or found new ones, which may impact on their ability to attend matches, said Prof Pearson. This has created the opportunity for a new cohort of supporters to attend. 

It comes after Aston Villa pair Matty Cash and Lucas Digne were hit with a bottle thrown from the Everton end just 24 hours earlier

However, the current problems are not just about fans, said Prof Pearson.

'But also, you have to look at crowd management,' he added. 'Eighteen months out has had a huge impact on policing. It is about building the relationship between the police and fans and the police knowing who they are. With 18 months out the police have not had chance to build those relationships.'

Chief Constable Mark Roberts will lead the police response to crowd trouble at matches

In addition, experienced stewards, have moved on to other jobs.

'It is really problematic,' said Prof Pearson, but he warned that a measured response is required, since he believes a return to heavy-handed policing at matches will only make matters worse.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, English football cultivated an international reputation for hooliganism, when organised violence became commonplace.

'Now is not the time to panic,' added the University of Manchester academic. 'We are not going back to the 1980s. I would expect things to settle down because I would expect football fan behaviour to settle down and the football fan policing operations to get back up and running in terms of those relationships that have been damaged by the lockdown.'

During the weekend there were also arrests at the match between West Ham United and Manchester United, including one on suspicion of assaulting an emergency worker, while the game between Brentford and Wolverhampton Wanderers had to be paused because a drone was flown over the ground.

At the East Midlands derby between Nottingham Forest and Derby County in the EFL Championship, a firework was thrown onto the pitch, causing a delay during the second half of the match at the City Ground, while it was removed. Forest would win the game 2-1.

Thomas Tuchel has urged English football to help stop similar incidents from happening again

A security expert has highlighted a shortage of police within stadiums as post pandemic football disorder increases.

Clubs pay for policing inside stadiums and on their land around it, and one security company, which works with top tier clubs, has suggested more officers are needed.

'The reduction of policing inside grounds hasn't helped at all,' Rowland Stone, of Tyler Security, told the Telegraph.

Stone, an ex-Met Police dog handling manager, said some clubs had become increasingly reliant on their own staff.

'The stewards' powers are very, very limited, other than ejection,' he added. 'Stewards have got no powers to retain or restrain. I don't think that helps. They're probably £9-an-hour, if they're lucky. Why would they want to get beaten up?'

The problem is compounded by a national shortage of security staff post lockdown.

According to police figures, the police presence at matches has increased significantly this season, in response to disorder.

In 2019-20, the police were present at 46 per cent of matches across the EFL and National League, which has increased to 66 per cent of games this season.

While there is no evidence that football supporters are drinking more alcohol before games, it is the case that England's booze consumption dramatically increased through lockdown.

A Public Health England study reported a 25% increase in sales of alcohol in supermarkets and shops during the pandemic. In addition, experts believe there has been a change in behaviour among some parts of the population.

Professor Gabriel Scally, president of the epidemiology and public health section of the Royal Society of Medicine, told the Telegraph: 'We have to be careful about encouraging copycat behaviour, but I think the whole country has been under an enormous amount of stress for two years now… So I'm not surprised that there are problems of disorder.' 

The increase in arrests and incidents has come despite slightly fewer matches due to Covid-related postponements this season.

There have been 210 incidents of disorder – which can include flares, missiles and hate crime – involving fans under the age of 25 compared to 168 in the 2019-20 season.

Chief constable Mark Roberts, the head of the UK's Football Policing Unit, told the BBC that cases of anti-social behaviour among younger fans had become a particular area of concern.

Mr Roberts agrees that a post-Covid excess and a new cohort of fans may be a factor in the increase in trouble at football grounds, combined with a national shortage of stewards and security staff. He does not accept, however, that forces are playing catch-up on intelligence around football violence and he is confident that the previous approaches will work now.

Nottingham Forest's match with Derby County saw a firework thrown onto the pitch

• In 2019-20, 34% of games had an incident reported, but this season it is 48% (almost half of all matches)

• Arrests are up – 802 football related arrests this season, which is an increase of 47% from 2019-20 (547) 

• The numbers are high despite fewer games than in 2019-20, because of games being called off – 1581 games have been played in 2021-22, compared to 1670 games in 19-20

• Biggest increase in reported incidents is in the Championship and National League. Up 58% in Championship and 56% in national league

•There has been a police presence at 46% of games in 2019-20, across the Premier League, EFL and National League, compared to  66% of games this season.

Source: UK's Football Policing Unit

'It is a clear call for action for all of us to make sure we are doing everything we can,' the chief constable told Sportsmail.

'We have seen a big rise since 2015. We will not find one single cause there are a whole series of things. We are world leaders in terms of keeping football safe.'

Mr Roberts said the police would be working with the leagues, FA and CPS to curb the rise in disorder. 

Thomas Tuchel, the Chelsea head coach, has said he enjoys the atmosphere at Premier League matches, with fans close to the pitch, but he has urged English football to act to prevent incidents.

Earlier this season, Burnley's Matt Lowton was hit by a Coke bottle at Leeds United

He appealed in a video ahead of the Spurs game for fans to stay off the pitch.

'If there is a new trend [of disorder], we should act together to stop it as soon as possible to protect the environment of this game and the atmosphere that's absolutely unique in England,' said Tuchel.

'I love to have the fans close to the pitch. Not behind fences and not behind nets. It's a brilliant atmosphere. In general, I'm not concerned [for my safety]. I enjoy this atmosphere, also in away stadiums, it's brilliant.'

Tuchel declined to comment on the flashpoint directly after the game, saying he was unaware of the incident.

Rudiger has history with Tottenham supporters. He accused Spurs fans of racially abusing him during a clash between the two team in 2019.

A fan has been arrested and released on bail after the incident involving two Villa players

However, no one was punished after an investigation into the flashpoint, prompting Rudiger to say 'racism has won'.

An FA spokesperson said it had launched several investigations this weekend..

'We are investigating the fan disorder incidents at the Everton v Aston Villa, Southampton v Manchester City and Chelsea v Tottenham Hotspur matches, and we are liaising with the clubs and the police.'

'We are also looking into the events involving the drone at the Brentford v Wolverhampton Wanderers match, also liaising with the club and the police.'

While, the clubs and the police can act against individual supporters, the FA can take disciplinary action against clubs found not to have done enough to prevent or deal with misconduct.

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