Sam Wallace: The Chris Kirkland attack was horrific – but let's keep some perspective

Talking Football: There were 3,089 arrests out of an attendance of 37m. That's 0.01 per cent

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.

Violent, cowardly and thuggish? Undoubtedly, but not exactly the Professor Moriarty of football-related crime, is he? And as for his fellow pitch invaders, one of them – you will have to refer back to the video clip for this one – appears to be, for reasons best known to himself, fighting with the goal net.

Kirkland, thankfully, was not seriously injured. As for his alleged assailant, widely named in newspapers and on social media there is a good chance he will be given a custodial sentence. His banning order from football grounds will be so long there is even a chance Leeds might be back in the Premier League by the time he is permitted legally to watch them in person.

Whoever is found guilty of assault, encroachment on the pitch, encouraging others to follow him – and the distinct possibility that he may have breached an existing banning order – it will be a long rap sheet. Gloucestershire police made an arrest yesterday.

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

The problem with an incident as regrettable as the one at Hillsborough is that it often provokes a sharp lurch to the right, when it comes to attitudes towards football's so-called "problem" and demands more of police and courts. Yet the legislation introduced around a decade ago to deter football disorder is already draconian and civil liberties groups have asked serious questions about the measures' 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 to have a criminal conviction in order to be served one. The police can apply to a court for an FBO on the basis that they have evidence that the individual is considered likely to cause disorder around a match.

There are around 3,000 FBOs currently in place, of which 500 are "on complaint", or for those who have not been convicted of an offence. FBOs typically include a ban from an exclusion zone around an individual's home ground, a ban from all grounds in the country and the requirement to surrender one's passport while England are playing abroad. FBOs last a minimum of three years.

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. While discretion is used by the police, that might include swearing at a ground. Or gesturing at opposing fans. Entering a ground drunk can trigger an arrest, and potentially an FBO. And before the clubs grab the moral high ground, it should be pointed out that they all serve alcohol.

In general, there is little sympathy for football supporters or a desire to hear about what they regard as maltreatment. One only needs to witness the struggle of the families of victims of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster for justice to recognise that and Friday's incident at the same ground will not help.

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 back home without watching their team play at Old Trafford. They were held for four hours, placed on coaches with no toilets and told by police that they had 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 37m. That is, as the Home Office itself points out, less than 0.01 per cent of all supporters or one arrest for every 12,249 tickets sold. It was 9 per cent down on the 2009-2010 season.

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

There has also been the introduction of "bubble matches", the term used to describe the style of policing for games identified as being at high-risk of disorder. Away supporters are given no alternative but to collect their tickets at a designated location and be bussed in and out en masse under police supervision, as will be the case for the Burnley v Blackburn Rovers, the east Lancashire derby, next month.

It should be noted that some supporters prefer the peace of mind that "bubble match" policing – implemented, for example, for the South Coast derby last year – gives them. Others regard it as another liberty removed from the well-behaved, blameless football supporter.

Policing itself can make a huge difference. Last month, Manchester City supporters following their team in Madrid for the Champions League game at the Bernabeu reported unprovoked baton charges from Spanish police. Michael Slater, the Charlton Athletic chairman and a City fan, was knocked unconscious in the attack.

The leading academic research on football disorder has found conclusively 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. It would be wrong to say that fans have not attacked players before – sadly, they have – but the statistics tell us that it is very rare.

What is not in doubt is that the punishment for Kirkland's assailant will be more severe for him having committed the offence on a football pitch than had he done so on the street. Dave Jones, the Sheffield Wednesday manager, called on fans to "police" themselves but, given how quickly Kirkland's attacker's identity was circulated, that appears to be exactly what happened.

For the vast majority of Leeds fans, and the wider football supporter fraternity, appalled by the actions of one of their number, attending games is something 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.

It would help if Rio made his stance clear

Leaving aside the conflicting positions of Rio Ferdinand and Sir Alex Ferguson on the Kick It Out T-shirt, a simple question: what exactly are Ferdinand's views on the John Terry saga?

So far we have had a series of tweets loaded with double meaning and a refusal to wear a T-shirt. Understandably, Ferdinand appears to be upset about certain things but it would help if he was specific. The treatment of his brother Anton? The verdict of Westminster magistrates' court? The regulatory commission's four-game ban for Terry? The Kick It Out campaign? His own fine for the "choc ice" tweet? All the above and more?

In the year that has passed there has been a criminal case, lasting one week, and a detailed 63-page commission report into the incident, even before you get into all the extraneous factors. Now the process is at an end it would be useful if Rio would say, with clarity, what he feels was wrong. The second-guessing does not help anyone.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
news
Life and Style
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor