Wider football world against net gains despite Manchester derby shame
Demands for safety netting at grounds to stop missile throwing are drowned out as clubs are challenged to weed out the culprits
In Bootle, they've a particular way of dealing with coins being thrown on the pitch. Send them back. That's what Jamie Carragher, son of that Merseyside district, did when he was hit during the bad-tempered fourth-round FA Cup match at Highbury in 2002. Though he probably wouldn't recommend it now – the Liverpool player faced the threat of legal action after the coin hit a woman in the crowd – the incident does reflect the fact that missiles being hurled, as they were at Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney on Sunday, is not a new phenomenon. It's just more visible these days.
The list of players who have been on receiving end in Manchester derbies is growing. Javier Garrido, now of Norwich City, accused United of creating a "climate of hostility" after being hit on the head while approaching the Old Trafford tunnel in 2009. A bottle was hurled at Craig Bellamy during his own City time, on the same day that a fan confronted him. So though Michael Owen has spoken of an increased vulnerability to missiles – "It's being seen more and more," he said. "When I used to play in Madrid it was all the time, when you go near the side of the pitch and you get things thrown at you. This is just awful" – there is no genuine sense within the game that PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor's call for netting will be heeded.
Netting creates the immediate concern of fans being penned in, anathema for those who have campaigned for justice since the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster. "The next thing would be wire mesh and then fencing, and we all know what that has meant, in restricting people from getting out of areas of a stadium," said Steve Kelly, of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign. "When something is put in place to stop people, people then just take what they are doing to the next level. Preventing missiles is a society thing. With all the money the clubs have to pay players the wages they are getting, there should be better ways to identify fans in the crowd who throw things."
In Spain – where the problem has been worse, as Owen said – there has also been an acceptance that it is impossible to legislate against every act from the stands. There is a net at one end at Seville but generally none, despite episodes such as an empty whisky bottle being thrown at Atletico Madrid in 2008 and Juande Ramos, then of Seville, once being hit in a derby game with Real Betis. Clubs confiscate bottle tops when you buy a drink at half-time but there is otherwise no move to halt supporters.
Stadiums in the Bundesliga, a model for good practice in many ways, have had flame-resistant mesh installed since Fifa asked for a solution for the 2006 World Cup which would prevent objects, including pyrotechnics, being thrown on to the pitch and to stop people running on to the field. The net is suspended from a steel rope built into the roof of the stadium.
British clubs are free to install netting, too, as long as it is ratified by the local safety authority. But the problem in Manchester is actually the very localised one of how the away supporters section is jammed in between two sections of home support – which means that visiting players celebrate right in front of City supporters. Two seasons ago, City tried a six-month experiment during their Europa League campaign which they thought might resolve the problem, by placing away fans in the third tier of the East Stand, similar to the way Newcastle United put their way fans up in the gods. But that placed the Etihad away fans above two tiers of home supporters, creating segregation problems when the stadium emptied. The club consider the end of the ground from which fans presently leave the Etihad as one of the safest in the country, because of the sterile area outside the stadium in that location. When the ground is expanded or redesigned – and City are doing feasibility studies at the moment – moving the away fans will be a priority.
With arrests of football fans last season 24 per cent down on previous seasons, we don't seem to have reached a seminal moment in the story of football hooliganism. Malcolm Clarke, chairman of the Football Supporters' Federation, cautioned against a knee-jerk reaction yesterday and there certainly seems to be a risk of the social and mass media exaggerating the extent of the problem.
"Netting is not something we feel it is necessary to have," Clarke said. "No one condones the throwing of missiles, but arrests last season were down on previous seasons and not many social phenomena alter that much. It is undoubtedly improving and I think before we start making knee-jerk reactions to particular incidents we ought to bear that in mind."
Clarke hopes supporters will become more self-policing and that peer pressure would also prevent fans throwing coins.
Ferdinand, the player who was on the receiving end of the missile, has not made an official complaint, though the offending fan can still be charged under football regulations. A high-profile life ban will be the most effective way of dealing with future incidents.
What happens in other countries
* Bundesliga (Germany)
The majority of clubs use protective netting hung from tall poles behind the goal to prevent missiles from entering the field of play. Most stadiums in the Bundesliga have adapted seating, with the front row raised above the field of play.
* Serie A (Italy)
Protective netting is also deployed as well as raised seating. In some stadiums, including the Juventus Stadium, transparent screens and fences are erected around the perimeter of the pitch.
* La Liga (Spain)
Protective netting is used behind goals while some clubs have built moats between the stands and the pitch to limit the risk of pitch invasions.
* Ligue 1 (France)
Insurmountable metal fencing is used, particularly in smaller stadiums. Protective fencing is used behind the goal at Marseilles' Vélodrome.
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