Bursting the Bubble

Wrexham travel to Chester on Monday 22nd September and, once again, the police and clubs will force fans to submit to “bubble match” restrictions. The Football Supporters Federation (FSF) opposes bubble matches and has even helped fans campaign to overturn such restrictions. Wrexham fan Andy Pierce has set up a petition to put pressure on the police and clubs, he explains why below…

I’m not naive enough to think there’s no chance of disorder at this game.

That risk has always been there since the 70s, maybe even the late 60s, but bubble match restrictions do not target the minority of troublemakers.  Instead, they punish all away fans, and hope that will deter the violent minority – a collective action that is wrong in principle. People should be held to account for their own actions, not punished for the behaviour of others.

One Wrexham fan lives a mile away from Chester’s ground and will have to travel to Wrexham, to be bussed in to Chester in the bubble, then back to Wrexham post-game, only to have to drive home to Chester at god knows what time.

The police and football authorities should concentrate on tackling troublemakers and incidents of disorder directly, with the co-operation of football clubs and supporters’ organisations. The disorderly few should be held to account for their behavior and the vast majority of peaceful football fans should have freedom of movement.

Back in 2005 Wrexham met Chester in the LDV Trophy with the game attracting more than 5,000 fans, with a large travelling support from Wrexham. The match was policed in such a way that there was no trouble at the ground.

The only minor incidents were out of town, with only five arrests, which is fewer than at the average Chester race meeting. The police kept the troublemakers apart and did so in a way that was praised by fans and the host club Chester for its manner, its efficiency and its fair financial cost to the club.

In 2009, the two sides met again. This time at the Racecourse Ground, again, without the need for bubble policing. There were 123 officers involved in the operation that day, with a total cost of £12,179. As in 2005, only 5 arrests were made.

With no rising trends in arrest figures I wanted to know on what grounds, and using what data, North Wales Police and Cheshire Police forces came to the decision that the fixture needed to become a bubble match in 2013.

Not only that, I wanted to know exactly why an extra 100 police officers were required to police the same number of people, taking the total policing bill to £35,000+.

Under the bubble-match arrangements last season, 23 arrests were made, an increase of 18 arrests from the two previous fixtures between Wrexham and Chester. It suggests that heavy handed policing has actually increased disorder.

I recently had the chance to put this query to Superintendent Rob Kirman of North Wales Police, at a Wrexham Supporters Trust meeting. He explained that policing methods have changed since 2009, and that they treat each fixture individually, based on current intelligence, without looking at historical cross-border derbies. If this is the case why do Police keep insisting that the reason for such a strong police presence is because this fixture has a long history of disorder. It appears to me that NWP only like to quote history when it suits them, and not when facts are placed in front of them.

For the return game at Chester, the bubble was again used and the number of police on duty was the same, but this time for a much smaller crowd of 4,326, with 1,180 traveling supporters. That breaks down as one police officer for every 19 people in attendance, or one officer for every five travelling fans.

Manchester derby

To put that ratio into perspective, for the Manchester derby, Greater Manchester Police are able to police the match, with no adjustments to kick off times, with over 400 police officers. For the purpose of my study I rounded that figure up to 500.

At Old Trafford the attendance was 76,000, that’s around one officer for every 190 fans. And that doesn’t even included the tens of thousands of people packing out pubs all across the city to watch on TV. How can the police even begin to defend the amount of police resources ploughed into a conference fixture?!

The response to this was that the cross-border derby has a higher ratio of risk element fans per people in attendance, than that of the Manchester derby. A clever statement that I would agree with, but it is a statement that has absolutely no relevance to the risk of disorder. Both Manchester teams have huge notorious risk elements; that they are both dwarfed by the number of well-behaved supporters does not take away the chance of confrontation in the slightest. Yet the game still goes ahead without the need for ‘Bubble’ policing.

High risk

Last season Lincoln City and Grimsby Town met twice over the Christmas/New Year period for the Lincolnshire derby; two clubs of comparable size to Wrexham and Chester and a fixture with an equal history of disorder. Both games had attendances of nearly 5,500, more than were at the Exacta Stadium in Chester last season.

Despite declaring both games ‘High Risk’, Lincolnshire Police, a force with less resources than North Wales Police and Cheshire Police combined, saw no reason to make these matches ‘bubble’ games and were able to manage them without serious incident.

Only two arrests were made following the Boxing Day clash; a youth supporter of Grimsby for possession of a smoke bomb and a forty-two year old Lincoln fan for breach of his banning order. Again, I ask why other police forces manage without the bubble, but ours can’t.

Travel Arrangements

The details of the ‘Safe Travel Arrangements’ (as the club and police are now calling the bubble match in a poor PR effort to make kettling on wheels sound better) for the Chester v Wrexham bubble match on 22nd September have now been released by Wrexham AFC. There will be varied bus pick up points across north Wales, but for example, the bus leaving Wrexham will pick up at 5:45 for an 8pm kick off. Two and a quarter hours for a journey that would normally only take 20 minutes, bearing in mind that Hereford can be reached in two hours from Wrexham. These pick up times basically rule out any supporter who works past 5:30pm or works outside Wrexham and in my opinion, alienates supporters who haven’t missed a derby in decades!

As fans we call on both football clubs, the police and local authorities to reject and end the extreme and discriminatory practice of bubble matches. Former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott even branded bubble matches the “most draconian travel restrictions since miners’ strike pickets were targeted”.

If you back our call sign the petition here…

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