THE next four weeks were meant to offer up a feast of football. Instead the European Championship has been dominated by debate about scenes of hooliganism that were supposed to have been consigned to history.
Violent clashes between England and Russian fans have seen Uefa warn that both teams face expulsion from the tournament if the trouble continues. Yesterday saw Alexander Booth, from Huddersfield, and Sheffield man Ian Hepworth jailed for throwing bottles at police.
Amid much soul-searching at home, however, an international hooliganism expert has told The Yorkshire Post that England supporters are not to blame for the violence and that they have effectively been left at the mercy of highly organised Russian gangs and French-based ‘Ultras’.
Professor Cliff Stott, formerly principal research fellow in security and justice at Leeds University, claimed the safety of English fans has been compromised by the failure of tournament hosts France to adopt the proven policing plan he helped to formulate.
Prof Stott, who is regarded as one of the world’s leading academic experts on the psychology and policing of crowd events, assisted in the design and execution of police strategy for the 2004 European Championship in Portugal. The ‘softly-softly’ approach he recommended resulted from a 14-year look at riot policing including a study of 34 matches involving England fans in nine European countries.
He blamed a “flawed policing plan” for allowing a hardcore of 150 Russian hooligans to engage in violent attacks on England fans, without any of them being arrested.
“The authorities have begun to recognise that rather than being the protagonists, English fans have been victims of attacks on them by Marseille Ultras and organised groups of Russians,” he said.
“The police’s approach is in stark contrast to international standards of good practice which were established after Euro 2004, where the approach was one of friendly and proactive engagement.
“It was so successful that it was adopted at the 2008 and 2012 tournaments where there were no major incidents. It would appear the French have singularly ignored that advice.”
Prof Stott said interacting with fans meant police were more likely to get them “on side” and find out information about the sources of trouble, with more forceful measures held in reserve should they be required.
He said England fans were an obvious target for thugs from other countries because of their past association with hooliganism.
“The mythology around England means that if you are a group that pursues credibility and status, there is no better target than England fans because if you’re seen as the victor it pushes you to the top of the European hooliganism league.”
Prof Stott, of Keele University, now fears for what might happen in Lille, where England fans have been advised to stay ahead of the game against Wales on Thursday in the small town of Lens, given that Russia play Slovakia there a day earlier.
“Of course there are still pernicious and obnoxious elements within the England support but the idea we still have a serious hooligan problem doesn’t stand up to scrutiny,” he said.
“Rather than looking inwards at ourselves we should be asking the French authorities what they are doing to protect the tens of thousands of England fans who have been told to congregate in Lille.
“A ban on alcohol won’t help – the Russians aren’t interested in drinking because it inhibts their ability to fight.”