Is Fan Behaviour Eroding in 2021/22?

There’s a general thought that fan behaviour around the country is getting worse.

It certainly seems there have been more instances of pitch incursions than usual, including one at our own ground. At Rotherham recently, a fan ran onto the pitch and appeared to strike Harry Pell of Accrington before he missed a penalty. Not 24 hours later, a fan ran onto the pitch in Nottingham Forest’s game against Leicester and approached players with our former winger Brennan Johnson involved in the ensuing melee.

Last week, as we went down 1-0 to Doncaster Rovers, two fans came on the pitch and held up the game. That’s been the subject of much discussion recently, and last week Liam Scully came on the podcast to talk about the club’s response. That podcast with Liam is, as always, very interesting and can be listened to here. He explained how the club are geared to deal with such instances, and also confirmed the supporter we not Doncaster Rovers fans, as many first thought.

“First and foremost, when a pitch incursion happens, our job is to protect the players and officials and everyone that side of the hoardings. Second job is to prevent a second pitch incursion; statistically, when one happens it is the time a second will most likely happens. Third, it is to deal with the incident with proportionate force.”

Credit Graham Burrell

“They didn’t come from the Stacey West Stand, they were Lincoln City fans. At that stage of the game, the majority of our stewarding force was deployed in front of the Stacey West stand. That does leave gaps within the stadium and at times we must make a decision based on risk assessment. Our stewarding source did its job, because it created a barrier between the Lincoln City fans that went onto the pitch and the Doncaster fans. In terms of how we deal with that situation, there are some occasions that things are going to happen that you can’t control. I would look back at that scenario and say we got our tactics and approaches right.”

Whilst that answers the questions posed in the immediate aftermath of our game, it does still leave a more general one unanswered; is fan behaviour getting worse? We hear the stories and read the news, but there’s an argument between major figures on both sides of the fence that the problem is escalating. The problem is football fans have always been demonised, and therefore any report or notion that things are getting worse feeds into the rhetoric national papers like to follow.

When it comes to national paper rhetoric, the red tops love a bit of Mark Roberts, chief constable of Cheshire Police, and the National Lead for football policing. You might recall these comments from him on safe standing, earlier in the year. “We know it’s easier for people to mask themselves and chant racial abuse, throw pyrotechnics or behave in other anti-social ways if they are standing,” he said. “It will change the atmosphere in a ground as well, as we know it will likely be males between 16 and 55 who want to stand more than women, families or older fans. That change will not be for the better. It’s going to make things a lot more challenging – to put the top hat on it and allow people to drink in the stands would be ludicrous.”

Yep, him. Well, he believes that arrest stats are through the roof, and has urged supporter groups and clubs to help in the fight against the rising problem. “We need to work closely with leagues and clubs to share information and intelligence,” he said. “We need to have targeted operations. Where it’s the right thing we need police in the grounds to take positive action because there needs to be a visible sign that this behaviour is unacceptable. The best way of conveying that is to see someone get arrested and taken out of the ground. It needs a joint effort. I think it’s quite encouraging the response we’ve had from the league and safety officers but we need that joined-up approach to translate into action.”

Demonised for too long?

Whilst I can buy into some of that, his claims that younger fans are being groomed by older hooligans is a worrying coming together of two of the red tops favourite sensationalist headlines; ‘grooming’ and ‘hooligans’.  “It’s really worrying. If you’re a 61-year-old football hooligan, where do you get your kudos from? Some young people look up to them and, in effect, they are grooming them into bad behaviour. We need to be alive to it,” he said in a recent iNews interview. In terms of his statements, he seems as inconsistent as the Imps’ form this season, going from semi-sensible statement to wild, headline-grabbing hyperbole. He’s even suggested safe standing would lead to increased cocaine use if that was possible in 2022.

Despite his seniority, not everybody agrees with him on the problems facing football. A recent article by The Athletic had two senior figures speaking out against Roberts’ claims.

“There are a few things going on here,” says Owen West is a former superintendent at West Yorkshire Police. “The first is Mark Roberts and the UK Football Policing Unit (UKFPU) have marginalised themselves from the rest of the industry because of their constant claims the world is going to hell in a handcart. They’ve cried wolf so many times they’re just ignored now. Roberts was ignored after his ridiculous call for neutral venues in Project Restart, he was ignored on safe standing and he was ignored on the pilots for the relaxation of the alcohol ban. The release of these statistics, which demonise all fans, is a strategic move to regain the initiative.”

There’s also a suggestion that the more hooliganism appears to be on the rise, the more funding will be funnelled into the department headed by Roberts to deal with the ‘issue’.

“Arrest statistics are notoriously unreliable in terms of using them as a basis for wider judgments,” explains Geoff Pearson is a professor of law at the University of Manchester. “They usually tell us more about police resources, targets and priorities than criminality. After all, we’ve been told by Mark Roberts not to read too much into the falling arrest statistics of recent years, so it would seem odd to do the reverse now they are rising. We also shouldn’t be surprised to see arrests rising when we know more police are being deployed at football matches. If you have more police at games, you are going to get more arrests.”

It’s a similar theory to the pandemic when positive Covid cases rose in accordance with the number of test kits handed out. However, that was also rhetoric used by anti-vaxxers or so-called pandemic deniers, to bolster their truth. in reality, there was a middle ground that was close to the truth; figures were alarming, but extra tests exasperated those numbers. Is it the same with football-related incidents? Is there a mix of increased policing making numbers worse, which harbingers of doom are seizing upon?

I guess from personal experience I can offer a degree of comment. In terms of fans visiting Sincil Bank, I don’t think there’s been any more, or less disorder than recent years. Tonight’s opponents Bolton came to Lincoln before the pandemic and smashed up pubs, whilst games against Grimsby and Hull were always flashpoints as well. I do think there’s an element of new trouble amongst our current fanbase, I’ve seen more Lincoln fans involved in incidents on the streets around the ground after games, and I think it’s a commonly accepted truth that there are a group of younger supporters currently causing more trouble than normal. Are they led on by the 60-something so-called hooligans of yesteryear? That’s not something I see, nor am led to believe happens. Mark Roberts mention of grooming is a weak attempt to bring back a stigma of the past for current political points.

My gut feeling is many of these young people causing trouble are in the 16-18 bracket and have spent some of their key teenager years locked up at home. The restrictions on our liberties, imposed because of the virus, affected different people in different ways, and for a certain age group I think it’s made them want to ‘cut loose’ for want of a better expression. The same can perhaps be said for a certain mentality as well; they’ve been coupled up so long that now a matchday isn’t a few drinks and a game, it’s an all-day bender on coke, drink and whatever else. The sad truth is this was becoming a problem before the pandemic; remember when Jack Grealish was punched on the pitch? There was a heavy suggestion coke was involved then, as it is now. Maybe the pandemic was just the magnifying glass that accentuated a growing problem. However, is that a football problem, or is football the outcome, not the cause?

There’s no doubting that some individual’s behaviour has got worse; the scenes at Sheffield Wednesday back in October proved that. I saw and heard some disgusting things from Lincoln fans, but nothing serious from home supporters. However, I juxtapose that with Cambridge away, where our bus got into St Ives early and we drank all morning. There was singing, a bit of standing on chairs and general loud behaviour. For some, would that not also be a reflection of today’s supporters, held up as an example of loutish behaviour. Is lining up 150 jaeger bombs at 11 am in the morning likely to result in better behaviour than a line of coke if the person imbuing either is of the mind to cause trouble? Probably not. I would imagine there are thousands of cocaine users up and down the country who go to games and don’t smash up pubs, fight locals or get on the pitch to cause a problem. Also, is cocaine use at football a new problem? I recall an away game over the last five years where the pub had an unusually long queue for the cubicles that came out of the toilets and into the pub. Once the queue cleared, there was a line of white powder that had clearly leaked out of someone’s pocket as they had gone into the toilet, a genuinely financial hit someone took without their knowledge. It’s nothing new; so why suddenly is it a headline now? Is it another lazy example of the media linking two taboo subjects for an attention-grabbing paper seller?

When you introduce drug use into the equation, it becomes less of a football problem and more of a societal problem. I read earlier today about a scaffolder jailed in Lincoln for attacking another man whilst holding a pint glass; the insulation was that also involved drug use, as the man had no memory of what had occurred. In general, it feels to me as if cocaine use is on the rise in wider society, not just football, but has been for a fair few years now. I have been approached at matches and asked if I have got any gear (I must have one of those faces). Back in my younger days, drug use was usually prevalent after a match, but rarely did I see or experience anyone using drugs during a game. Attitudes towards certain things change over the years; when I was young, cocaine wouldn’t have been affordable on a matchday, and it was;’t something you could ask someone for in the street. Now, attitudes and availability has clearly changed, and that’s resulted in increased use, in nightclubs and pubs as well as at the football. One would imagine other big events; gigs, horse race meets and the like, have the same problem, but in those environments, there isn’t the ‘us and them’ mentality of football, which probably acts as a catalyst for some drug users, as it does a very small percentage of those who drink excessively on match days.

Perhaps the issue here is within wider society, rather than simply football. Somebody ought to tell Mark Roberts that the problem isn’t standing up at games at all.