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Sam Wallace: Kirkland attack need not provoke kneejerk reaction


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.

Thankfully, Kirkland was not seriously injured. As for his  assailant, widely named in newspapers and on social media, there is a good chance that he will be given a custodial sentence.

If he is found guilty of assault, encroachment on the pitch and encouraging others to follow him, it will be a long rap sheet. Gloucestershire police made an arrest yesterday.

It was appalling to watch, and he deserves to be punished. But what about the wisdom of the wider clamour for the police and the courts to get tough with football fans?

Incidents as regrettable as the one at Hillsborough often provoke a sharp lurch to the right. Yet the legislation introduced to deter football disorder is already draconian, and civil liberties groups have asked serious questions about its 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 a criminal conviction to be served one. The police can apply for an FBO on the basis that they have evidence that the individual is considered likely to cause disorder around a match.

FBOs typically include a ban from the area around an individual's home ground, a ban from all grounds in the country and the requirement to surrender one's passport when England play abroad.

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. This might include swearing at a ground. Or gesturing at opposing fans. Entering a ground drunk can trigger an arrest, and potentially an FBO.

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 home without watching their team play at Old Trafford. They were held for four hours, on coaches with no toilets, and told by police 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 37 million. That is less than 0.01 per cent of all supporters, or one arrest for every 12,249 tickets sold - down 9 per cent on the 2009-2010 season.

Yet even now, the authorities continue to video innocent supporters watching games, a practice that understandably upsets many. Police are likely to take your name if you are ejected for persistent standing or have a ticket in the wrong section of the ground, even though these are not criminal offences.

The leading academic research on football disorderconcludes 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.

For the vast majority of football supporters, attending games is something that 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.