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It is time we burst this ‘bubbling’

A new report describes how the police and football clubs are conspiring to restrict the free movement of fans.

Peter Lloyd

Topics Politics

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Is it fair that the vast majority of supporters, who behave well, should have their freedom to travel to a popular leisure activity curtailed because of the risk that there will be disorder caused by a small number of troublemakers? That’s the question posed by the rise of the ‘bubble’ match.

‘Bubble’ football matches are the culmination of years of growing restrictions on football fans who follow their team to away matches. Bubble matches are ‘kettling’ on wheels. Travelling fans must be transported on licensed coaches and under police escort, from a designated pick-up point to a designated drop-off point. No independent travel is allowed to the match by car, train or any other means of transport. Fans often must pick up their tickets on route, for example at a motorway service-station at a halfway point. Their freedom of movement is suspended.

Only last weekend, bubble restrictions were imposed on Portsmouth supporters travelling to Southampton for the local derby between two neighbouring teams from England’s south coast. Even if you lived a long distance from the point of departure – including in Southampton itself – as a Portsmouth fan, you were required to leave from the specified Portsmouth departure point in order to go to the match. This is a condition of ticket sales. Fans were met by the police in Southampton, and escorted to and from the ground through what the police call ‘the sterile area’. The Pompey (Portsmouth) Supporters Trust vice-chair, Ken Malley, spoke out against these restrictions: ‘We are against bubble matches because of the human rights issues and because it gives the idea that all football fans have to be controlled.’

Through research and freedom of information (FoI) requests, the Manifesto Club – the civil liberties group I have written a report for – has identified at least 48 bubble matches that have taken place, involving at least 14 major clubs in England and Wales. In spite of loud protests from supporters’ clubs – and declining trouble at football matches – these extreme travel restrictions are still being considered and implemented.

The impact of bubble matches

In order to impose restrictions on travelling supporters, a number of clubs issue vouchers rather than tickets. The vouchers are then exchanged for tickets at a designated point on route to the stadium, often a motorway service-station. The ‘voucher for ticket’ exchange is policed, and travel beyond the point of exchange is also controlled, with coaches and minibuses, but usually not private cars, permitted to travel on to the stadium.

Unsurprisingly, a significant number of fans are put off going to bubble matches, and ticket revenue for the clubs is reduced. At one of the restricted matches, for example, Bristol City took 200 fans to Swansea rather than the usual 2,000, a 90 per cent reduction in support for their team on the day.

The extreme measures involved in bubble matches cause considerable disruption for fans. This is not surprising, because the whole system is designed for the convenience of the authorities – the police and the clubs – rather than for the supporters.

Clubs’ restrictions on visiting fans may make matches cheaper to police. This will happen if the risk category, into which all matches are graded, is lowered because of the tighter controls imposed. Clubs may therefore be tempted to opt for bubble matches, despite their unpopularity, since the savings can be close to £20,000 for a Championship-level fixture.

Of course, authorities claim that these restrictions make visiting supporters feel safer. However, a perverse result of the bubble restrictions is that football supporters can be more exposed to troublemakers, because they are travelling in a convoy of readily identifiable vehicles. Supporters travelling independently by car or train can usually move unobtrusively in and around the stadium, with the application of a minimum amount of common sense and caution. When this is effectively banned, supporters are wholly reliant on police security.

The ‘bubble’ group is unlikely to endear itself to opposing supporters. Indeed, these high-security measures can ratchet up fear and distrust. The sight of kettled supporters being escorted to and from the ground can lead to the very taunting and abuse which the authorities would presumably like to see reduced.

Criminalising football fans

It has become commonplace for travelling football supporters to be regarded with suspicion at best, and as alien and dangerous at worst. Pat-down body searches before entering the ground have been added to bag searches as common practice. Filming of supporters by the police has also become routine. The number of stewards at matches has been growing, as have reports and incidents of their heavy-handed behaviour. Some grounds have introduced webcams for stewards to film spectators at matches, and the practice looks likely to spread.

The bubble match is merely the most extreme example of restrictions on away fans’ freedom of movement. A more common form of restriction comes in the application of the Traffic Commissioner’s Guidelines, under which police can advise coach companies on the route they should take and the time they should arrive in the host town or city.

Although travel restrictions are not as severe as in bubble matches – independent travel is not banned entirely – these guidelines can still lead to extreme restrictions on coach-travelling fans.

One recent case affected Carlisle supporters, travelling for a match in Preston on 26 December 2011. The head of Carlisle United Supporters Club, Kate Rowley, had arranged through her brother (a parish priest in Preston) to stop at the Blessed Sacrament Club prior to the game for food and drink. Food was purchased in readiness for their visit. However, their plans were thwarted when Lancashire Police imposed restrictions on their travel, which meant that coach parties were prohibited from stopping.

Arrests in decline – bubble matches are not necessary

These extreme travel restrictions occur at a time when violent or disorderly incidents in and around football grounds have declined markedly. In the season 2010-11, total attendance at professional matches in England and Wales was more than 37million, representing by far the largest spectator events in Britain. The total number of arrests in that season was 3,089, which represents less than 0.01 per cent of all spectators, or one arrest for every 12,249 people. This was a record low according to the Home Office.

Although bubble matches affect clubs with a history of crowd disorder, all current indications are that football-related violence is at an historic low. It is highly questionable, therefore, whether these extreme travel restrictions are necessary and proportionate.

Bubble match restrictions do not target the minority of troublemakers. Instead, they punish all away fans, and hope to deter the violent minority by doing so. This is surely wrong in principle. Under Britain’s common law, people are treated as innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around. People are held accountable for their own actions, not punished for the actions of others.

We call on football clubs, the police and local authorities to reject and end the extreme and discriminatory practice of bubble matches. Instead, police and football authorities should concentrate on tackling troublemakers and incidents of disorder directly, with the co-operation of football clubs and supporters’ organisations.

Peter Lloyd is a member of the Manifesto Club, and writes occasionally for Free Society. He is the author of Bring on a Revolution – A Charter for Britain, and a former chairman of Peterborough United football supporters’ organisation.

This article is an abridged version of the Manifesto Club report, Criminalising Football Fans: The Case Against ‘Bubble’ Matches. Read the full report here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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