Recent figures placed Leeds United among the worst football clubs in the country for fan arrests and banning orders. But do Whites supporters have an unfair reputation? Sam Casey reports
In January of this year, a group of Leeds United and Tottenham Hotspur fans clashed in Leeds city centre in what police described as “an appalling explosion of violence”.
The brawl, which followed an FA Cup game at Elland Road, had worrying echoes of the organised hooliganism that blighted football in the 1970s and 80s.
But the fact that it caused such consternation, even among the hardened officers given the task of investigating it, is perhaps an indication of how far the game has come in the last three decades.
Gary Cooper, chairman of the Leeds United Supporters Trust and a fan for more than 30 years, is one person who believes football violence is largely a thing of the past and says such incidents are the exception that prove the rule.
“Up to about 10 years ago I would hear of these things,” he says.
“I don’t know if it’s because I’m chairman of the trust, but I never hear of it or see it any more. Those people who would’ve been involved in that sort of thing previously, I know some of them, and there’s no way in heaven or hell they’re involved any more.
“Does it still go on? I’m sure it does, I’m sure there’s a younger element that want to get involved in that side of it, but it’s not a part of football any more.”
Nevertheless, according to bald statistics, Leeds fans still cause more trouble than almost all other clubs in the country.
Figures released by the Home Office in October showed 101 supporters were arrested at games last season – roughly 63 per cent more than the previous season.
Only Premier League clubs Newcastle United and Manchester United had higher figures.
The figures also showed that 72 supporters are currently serving banning orders – the fourth highest total in the country.
Mr Cooper is keen to point out that the arrest figures, which largely relate to low-level disorder and alcohol offences, equate to about two per game. He says very few of those arrests resulted in court prosecutions – in most cases those arrested were given police cautions.
Moreover, despite the club’s current status in the Championship – the second tier of the English game – it still has some of the highest attendance figures, both home and away, in the game.
“We accept that a 60 per cent increase in arrests doesn’t read well,” Mr Cooper said.
“We don’t want to see an increase, we want to see a decrease in arrests. But context needs to be applied – we have large numbers of arrests because we have large numbers of fans at games.
“What we have seen is that, of the people arrested, more and more are being given a caution and told to go away, not taken to court.”
The supporters’ trust believes the club’s fans face more draconian policing and stewarding – particularly at away games – than supporters of other sides.
It says the “dirty Leeds” reputation gained in the dark days of the 1970s and 80s wrongly continues to influence some forces’ approach.
The trust submitted an official complaint to British Transport Police after United fans were met at a London Tube station by officers armed with “sticks and dogs” following a game at Millwall in September. The complaint is still under investigation.
Mr Cooper said: “Control doesn’t come from dogs and sticks, it comes from fans understanding the parameters they’re allowed to operate within, what’s going to be tolerated and what isn’t.
“It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. The reaction comes because of the way we are treated, not because of the way we are born to behave. We are one of the most heavily policed clubs in the country.
“That reputation doesn’t reflect fairly on our fanbase now.”
Trust secretary Paul Keat said he had direct experience of heavy-handed stewarding during a trip to Bolton Wanderers with his autistic son last season.
“My lad’s five and was absolutely loving the experience and I wanted to take some pictures, so I got my phone out” he said.
“A steward came up to me, grabbed me by the arm and said ‘You can’t do that’. He said it was ground regulations.
“I told him to show me where it said that and he didn’t have a leg to stand on. That was over-zealous stewarding and if I hadn’t known my rights he could have taken me away. That’s not right.” Another lifelong fan and trust member, Steve Clay, has seen the issue from both sides of the thin blue line, having policed football matches during 30 years as an officer.
He says there is a stigma attached to Leeds which is counterproductive.
“There are certain clubs, ourselves included, that come with an expectation among other forces that there are going to be issues when we visit,” he said.
“What police do is gear up for the worst. I’d like to see them gear up for the best, while preparing for problems.
“We often get policed with an iron fist when what’s needed is a velvet glove. Treat people decently and they will behave decently. I’ve said repeatedly that watching football isn’t a crime, but sometimes when you put on that replica shirt you get treated like a criminal.”
Mr Cooper said work was continuing with police forces and rival clubs to ensure that football had universal appeal.
“We’re trying our best to make the match day experience an enjoyable experience for everyone,” he said. “From the 75 year old grandad who’s been going his whole life to the two-year-old at their first game. We want it to be something that people buy into. Every club sells a dream of glory and success that somehow by association you somehow have a stake in. It’s a dream, it doesn’t have to be a nightmare.”
Chief Supt is happy for his family to go to games
Chief Superintendent Paul Money, the commander of Leeds police, regularly takes charge of football policing operations.
But, born in south Leeds not far from Elland Road, when off-duty he regularly sits in the stands as a fan.
“As a fan I have never had any issues. I’d be happy for any of my friends and family to go,” he said.
“It’s a safe environment, which it hasn’t always been.”
West Yorkshire Police adjusts the level of resources for games at Elland Road depending on the “risk” attached to the given fixture, based on the potential problems with rival clubs.
Mr Money said: “For high risk games it’s only right and proper that I give consideration to things like holding back the away support, to stop them coming into contact with home fans. “That’s not something I would do for a low or medium-risk fixture and not even for all high-risk games.
“There are various tactical options within the three risk categories, but they’re all well-rehearsed.”
The police chief says officers endeavour only to make arrests when there is obvious criminal behaviour.
But he adds that, while fan trouble has decreased, there remains a problem element.
“We haven’t had fixtures at Leeds where there has been significant disorder, although I can point to numerous fixtures where we have had disorder to deal with, often in advance of the game in the city centre not at the ground,” he said. “That’s testament to the policing operation at the ground.
“I don’t think it’s as significant as it was in the 70s and 80s, partly because of improved fan behaviour, partly better policing operations.
“But I would stop short of saying Leeds fans are policed on reputation only. Partly because I can’t speak for other forces, but partly because we have a significant number of fans on bans.”
He added: “I’m not interested in demonising Leeds United supporters and I don’t think their conduct generally would support that, but the more dialogue we have and the more opportunity we have to get both sides aired the better. Invariably when we do that it’s a very good relationship.”
LEEDS STATS 2013-13
Average home attendance: 23,662
Average away support: 2,678
Total arrests: 101
Number of banning orders: 72