You could tell that these were boys who meant business. Not simply by the fearsome set of their faces or the uncompromising nature of their gait, but also by the fact that they came accompanied by their own police escort - about a dozen PCs, not doing anything to stop the lads walking around, just keeping in touch a few yards behind, watching what was going on, one of their number talking into his radio, informing someone at the other end of the line of the movements of the group, another zooming in with a video camera he carried on his shoulder. Intriguingly, these officers, in uniform and in action on the streets of the London Borough of Brent, spoke with Mancunian accents.
Over the past five years there has been endless cod-sociological speculation about the decline of football hooliganism in the UK: it was the trauma of the Hillsborough disaster, some say, or the widespread use of Ecstasy, or the gentrification of the game - or if not that, it's down to Nick Hornby. The truth is that the urge to scrap with another football mob has not been purged from the national psyche, it is just that the police have become very good at stopping it.
It was this preventive approach to policing football that could be seen in action at the Cup Final, a match that, in effect, was a dress rehearsal for the biggest test of their methods the police have faced: the European Football Championships, starting on 8 June.
The operation appeared to work. A match involving Manchester United and Liverpool, two teams with a history of bilious rivalry, passed off without anything more serious than the occasional exchange of punches. All sorts of plans had been put into operation by the police to ensure it didn't get out of hand: local licensees were asked to shut their pubs an hour before kick-off; hundreds of Metropolitan and British Transport Police were about the place; in the background lurked members of the Territorial Support Group, with big batons and motorcycle helmets; cameras were everywhere; dozens of officers travelled down with the two sets of supporters from the Greater Manchester and Merseyside forces.
Many of the latter were engaged in "spotting", by which likely ringleaders are targeted, followed wherever they go and frustrated in their efforts to barney. There is nothing covert about spotting: spotters make it quite clear to their targets that they are on their trail; theirs is primarily a preventive manoeuvre.
The spotters know who to target thanks to extensive intelligence gathering. "We operate the same level of intelligence on known individuals as we would in building up a portfolio on a drug dealer or bank robber," says Mike Cobb of the Metropolitan Police. "It's not just a name and address, it's who they mix with, what pubs they drink in, what car they drive. We know these boys."
Information about targets is co-ordinated from a couple of rooms in Scotland Yard housing the National Criminal Intelligence Service (known in the acronym-happy world of the police as NCIS), a pool from which every force in the country can drink.
It is resources and experience like this that make the police confident that they will be able to control Euro 96 - slogan, "Football comes home", which many fear should perhaps read "Hooliganism comes home".
"We have no evidence to suggest this will be anything other than a festival of football," says John Deal, of the Euro 96 police operational headquarters at Scotland Yard. "Most of our time will be spent on simply ensuring that crowds get to and from matches quickly and safely."
"Festival of football" is not quite how the tournament is being viewed by several national newspapers, who have run lengthy pieces warning that the country should brace itself for an invasion of continental yobbery: "Spotlight on the hooligan armies bound for England," roared the Daily Express on Wednesday, "Neo-Fascists aim to stamp their mark on Euro 96," thundered the Times on Tuesday. After the decades of horror that our fellow citizens have inflicted on our neighbours, this is, to say the least, a bit rich. And quite where the idea came from that Danish, Swiss, and Italian visitors offer a challenge to our well-being is unclear. Violence at European international football matches has traditionally only occurred when England are involved, as the retard followers of our boys take the opportunity to re-enact continental military campaigns to their own satisfaction. And even on the few occasions when the brain-dead minority don't get muscular, the mere presence of Englishmen tends to provoke the locals (and the local constabulary) to test their mettle against the infamous visitors.
The exception to this is Holland versus Germany, a fixture which has recently been accompanied by significant German-provoked unrest; the one English export certain Germans seek to emulate is hooliganism and their recent efforts at catching up are not unimpressive. "One cannot compare the Netherlands match with Euro 96, however," says Michael Endler, head of the Dusseldorf-based police bureau monitoring Germany's hooligans. "That is a game steeped in a tradition of violence."
Although the threat of imported trouble is far less than the Euro-sceptic press has suggested, the police are taking no chances. A massive operation involving 10,000 officers from 10 forces will be co-ordinated by Malcolm George of Greater Manchester Police. He began planning three years ago and much of his effort will be what he calls "intellectual", based on the intelligence-gathering methods honed over the past few years. In a room in Scotland Yard, NCIS will have a team of 25 officers working round the clock during the month-long competition; German and Dutch police will input data and accompany their own lads throughout the tournament; French and Belgian police will keep an eye on Eurostar trains; 15 liaison officers, one from each participating country, will be based in NCIS, processing information.
The police, for operational reasons, are not keen to give away specific details of who, among the visitors, is being targeted. "We are not prepared to get involved in threat assessments of particular games," says John Deal. "Nor are we prepared to comment on particular sets of supporters."
But it is clear that some games present greater risks than others. Turkey, for instance, will have a large British-based following and it is not inconceivable that Kurdish sympathisers might take the opportunity to make a political point. And as the tournament progresses, the size of the visiting contingents will alter. British Transport Police, for instance, know that, should France qualify for the semi-final, three Eurostar trains have already been chartered ready to bring in fans on the day of the match.
The reality of Euro 96, however, is not that Britain needs to brace itself for invasion from hooligan armies, but that the 350,000 overwhelmingly polite, well-behaved and well-heeled foreign visitors will need protection from a significant threat to their well-being: the locals.
"To be honest," says Mike Cobb of the Met, "we are fairly confident that we are on top of the organised hooligan element, the area in which we can bring our intelligence operation to bear. But a punch-up in a pub is a very different thing."
You can see his point. Whatever the Daily Express may say, the prospect of fascist Croats battling with members of the far-right group Combat 18 is remote. More alarming is the thought of what might happen to groups of jolly Danes spending a fortnight in the bars of Sheffield and Nottingham, or the swanky Frenchman who chats up the wrong Geordie lass at the Bigg Market in Newcastle, or Italians in fancy overcoats taking the wrong turn in the mugging country around Anfield. Are the police methods sufficiently adaptable to protect them?
"If any police force needs to be congratulated for its skills in policing public order situations, it is the British police," says Dr Clifford Stott, a social psychologist at Bath University, and an expert in crowd control. "The difficulty is that when a disturbance happens they are often unable to differentiate between levels of problem. They have tactics for dealing with conflict which lead them to treat people in a uniform way, as trouble- makers."
What worries Dr Stott is that since the visitors are here to watch football, they will be classified as football fans, rather than simply as tourists, and football fans tend to receive a rather different level of policing.
"Police methods can contribute to violence, particularly if they use their crowd dispersal tactics in the wrong place," says Dr Stott. "There is a big difference between the way crowds behave outside a football ground and the way they act down the high street on a Saturday night. In some situations the manner in which the police act can increase tensions - the crowd believe that the policing is illegal, turn on them and the level of violence escalates rather than diminishes. I am not saying the police are responsible for violence. I am saying there needs to be an understanding on their part of the different dynamics of action."
For their part, the police are keen to make it clear that Dr Stott's worries are unfounded. "We have an over-arching strategy, but there is a need for flexibility within it," says John Deal. "The fact is, no one knows what will happen. We haven't any experience of hosting a sporting event of this magnitude since 1966 and that was another era. But we are confident we have covered every eventuality."
Any unfortunate Spaniard who knocks over a pint in a pub in the middle of Leeds in the next few weeks will be relieved to hear that.
WHY THE POLICE WON'T CHEER IF KLINSMANN SCORES
Euro 96 kicks off on 8 June at Wembley when England play Switzerland. The 16 teams are divided into four groups, who will play their games at Wembley, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle, Sheffield and Nottingham. The fans' dream semi-final line-up would probably feature Italy, Holland, Germany and England, coincidentally four of te heaviest-supported teams. But the police might prefer a different denouement: a last-minute winner by Germany's Klinsmann against England, for exampl e, could present them with significantly greater crowd control problems than semi-finals attracting more passive fans in fewer numbers from farther-flung countries. Of the possible outcomes, the police's dream semi-finals would probably feature Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Switzerland and Russia.
The fans' dream final
Holland beat Italy
England beat Germany (on penalties)
England beat Holland
The police's dream final
Bulgaria beat Czech Republic
Switzerland beat Russia
Switzerland beat BulgariaReuse content