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Viewpoint: A day of celebration becomes a day of recrimination

The events at Wembley were a national disgrace says Chris Hobbs.

Viewpoint: A day of celebration becomes a day of recrimination

Date - 15th July 2021
By - Chris Hobbs
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It should have been a day of celebration and national pride, regardless of whether England’s youthful ‘band of brothers’ won or lost. The UK’s vast, world renowned experience in policing football and other major events should have negated any threats be they from hooliganism or terrorism yet somehow the day itself turned out to be a catastrophe and an international embarrassment which have surely ended any hope of the UK staging the World Cup in 2030.

Normally, I prefer to write about the policing of public order events that I have personally observed but I confess that as an avid football fan I preferred to watch the Euro matches in my well-regulated local pub. My only direct observations came the night before the England versus Scotland match when I watched hundreds of Scottish fans literally and impressively,’ singing in the rain’ in and around Leicester Square.

As far as Sunday’s final was concerned there had already been ominous warning signals from England’s semi-final against Denmark. Hundreds of ticketless fans had forced their way into Wembley, Danish fans had been abused and even assaulted and thousands had descended in and around Leicester Square.

There were concerns that the final’s 8pm kick-off time would lead to a day of alcohol over-consumption but, in fairness to Met planners, the sheer scale in terms of numbers and consumption would have taken them by surprise even allowing for the events surrounding the previous semi-final.

Friends encounter trouble at Wembley

Events on that Sunday have been well documented with more revelations emerging on a daily basis. In fact, I have friends who are ‘official’ England fans who attend all England home matches and follow England abroad. They are, therefore, familiar with Wembley stadium. These friends have also travelled across the country following their league sides. They know crowds and understand security/policing operations.

One of the friends, Gary, who was accompanied by his football crazy family, stated that he had ‘never see anything like it and had never been so frightened.’ They had tickets to neighbouring Box Park for pre-match entertainment but to get there they had to run a gauntlet of flying bottles and traffic cones. The floor was carpeted with broken glass and the stench of cannabis was prevalent. He had to throw a coat over his pregnant partner in an attempt to protect her from the missiles. They thought of returning home but knew the route back was perilous while the stations were in chaos due, not just to those arriving, but people trying to leave.

Getting into the stadium was also chaotic with Gary’s son being told by an aggressive ticketless fan that he was going to push in with him. Luckily a woman intervened but his son was clearly shaken and was ‘checked out’ by a kindly, concerned police officer who interestingly was inside the stadium. The ‘ticketless’ situation with QR codes on mobiles needed for entry added to the chaos.

It may also be worthy of note that Gary and his family were not scrutinised in any way in respect of Covid.

Another long- established England fan, Mike, a Burnley supporter, also stated that, ‘he had never been so frightened’ and that, ‘you needed eyes in the back of your head,’ to avoid flying missiles. He also spoke of drunken females seemingly wanting to fight and people ‘staggering around; some unable to stand.’

Mike did state that where he was walking, there were plenty of police but that ‘they seemed unable to control the crowd,’ due to sheer weight of numbers.

Mike also referred to his journey on a packed train from Manchester where most of the youthful passengers appeared not to have tickets.

Phil and his friends battled their way through the chaos to find their seats occupied by individuals who had clearly entered the ground without tickets. A steward refused to intervene saying they should request the illicit occupants to move.

They did and the occupiers did move; to sit just behind them and issue threats and intimidation to the extent that Phil and his friends had to relocate.

All those I spoke to have significant experience of Wembley and all agree that the official ‘Covid capacity’ of 65,000 was exceeded by many thousands despite the authorities claiming it was just a hundred or so who had breached security.

There was also puzzlement at the lack of any outer ‘ring of steel.’ Gary recalled the World Cup in Russia where there were cordons supervised by significant numbers of heavily armed police who ensured that the effective stewards were able to carry out their duties untroubled. The first cordon was fully one kilometre from the stadium.

Sunday and a growing apprehension

On Sunday, I became aware via twitter that all was not well, initially in Leicester Square where large crowds had gathered and the floor was covered in debris. As the afternoon went on, almost inevitably bottles and cans were being thrown.

More footage from the stadium showed a mob of fans attempting to push their way through temporary steel barriers staffed by police and stewards. The barriers collapsed actually trapping fans who were in danger of being crushed. Police were frantically pulling people clear as others achieved their objective of bursting through the barriers.

Further footage saw crowds breaking through steel barriers and then sprinting up stadium stairs while other clips showed fans fighting amongst themselves on the approach to the ground. At 4.27pm I tweeted the following:

Any chance of us staging a future World Cup could well vanish over the next few hours.

 As I set off for my local pub, my mood of eager anticipation had vanished. Friends at our reserved table looked on in disbelief as I showed them the footage yet, this was only a small part of the unfolding story.

The match, the belated introduction of Jack Grealish, extra time and the groundhog day spectacle involving the missing of penalties, all unfolded in front of the biggest UK TV sporting audience of all time. Returning home, the gloom was compounded by more social media footage.

One item, where a group of fans entering the stadium were brutally attacked by another group of fans was initially portrayed as Italian fans being beaten. In fact, it was ticketless English fans bursting through a disabled entrance being attacked by those who had entered legitimately. That didn’t justify the brutality however.

In the West End, a group of jubilant Italian fans were surrounded by fully kitted out officers while a post-match tweet from the Daily Mail’s Mike Keegan proclaimed that;

“This was the worst experience I’ve ever had as a fan at a football match.”

He went on to lament the absence of police, bottles being thrown, people fighting and windows being ‘karate kicked.’ He also, somewhat strangely, mentioned an armed officer, ‘gun drawn’ chasing an individual.

The aftermath.

As Monday progressed, further details of the nightmare became apparent. Large crowds had also gathered in Trafalgar Square and attempted to enter the walled off ‘fans zone’ by hurling missiles at police including TSG officers.

Social media was full of accounts from angry fans who, in essence, berated the ‘authorities’ for losing control of events. Their accounts mirrored those of the above-mentioned friends who had endured such a torrid day. By Tuesday the Mail’s Mike Keegan wrote a published article entitled

‘Like a scene from prison-inmates had rioted and wardens lost control.’

The Mail newspapers are well known for their antipathy towards police yet the Mirror’s Andy Lines, who was also present, recounted a similar story of mayhem including a steward being threatened with a knife, a female being sexually assaulted and a terrified 12-year-old boy.

The article also featured a photo of an injured police officer with a bandage around his head.

Players families and racist abuse

Players families did not escape the chaos. Harry Maguire’s father reportedly suffered from rib injuries which affected his breathing. Relatives of both team’s players found ticketless thugs occupying their seats while the Italian manager’s son had to watch the first half sitting on a step.

By Wednesday morning, genuine England fans social media groups featured reports from those who attended principally the semi-final, stating that they were testing positive for Covid.

In addition to the catastrophic events of Sunday, which, let us remember followed serious problems before, during and after Wednesday’s semi-final, the nation’s acute discomfort was compounded by the shameful racist abuse directed against England’s black players.

Some consolation can perhaps be taken by the tidal wave of support for those players as illustrated by events at Marcus Rashford’s mural. This support included police officers from Greater Manchester.

Hindsight is of course a wonderful attribute, but another question is whether fan zones in parks across London would have eased the problem of dense, drunken crowds in the West End and even Wembley; social media had proclaimed how easy it had been to enter the stadium on Wednesday.

Doubtless, Mayor Khan and others were concerned as to breaches of Covid protocols but, in the event, the situations elsewhere appeared far more conducive to the spread of the virus than staging fan zones in wide open spaces.

Meanwhile the Met issued a statement which, in essence, congratulated itself for their part in the responding to events at Wembley and elsewhere. The statement gave its account of events but it left many questions unanswered including those being posed by individuals who attended the match. No mention was made of events on semi-final day which, as stated above, many felt was a seismic warning in respect of Sunday.

Another factor, following the Manchester Arena atrocity, was how easy it could have been for a terrorist or terrorists to, amidst the chaos, have entered the stadium and caused a massacre by exploding a device or even simply causing carnage using knives as we have seen previously.

Lessons and an FOIA request.

The Met did say lessons would be learned, but of course Wembley events are a partnership of a number of organisations including Brent Council, the FA and Wembley itself. Surely meetings between the Met, Wembley PLC and Brent would have discussed the failings at the semi-final and indeed the possibility of Wembley paying for police serials to be stationed inside the ground and immediately outside it.

Wreckage and debris in central London afte the final 

Many sections of the public believe police have ultimate responsibility for security at stadia and are unaware that the stadiums and private land surrounding those stadiums are the responsibility of the clubs/stadium owners as they are private property. Thus, a police presence has to be paid for and clubs/owners etc prefer to hire cheaper stewards. Some football clubs and more importantly, large sections of their support, don’t want a police presence at all.

Could it be that the result of Wednesday’s breaches of security, was the employment of additional stewards from a variety of companies who were simply not up to the job? Was the deployment of additional police officers inside the stadium and in the immediate vicinity even discussed bearing in mind that they would have to be paid for by Wembley or the FA or both.

A request to the Met under the Freedom of Information Act for the minutes of any meetings that took place between the semi-final and final will almost certainly fail as the Met looks to invoke one or more of the many exemptions.

One fact that has emerged from the wreckage of the last few days, which have almost certainly ended the UK and Irelands 2030 World Cup bid, is the professionalism, bravery and restraint of London’s front-line officers at the ‘sharp end’ of disorder and chaos.  Nineteen of those officers were injured and 89 arrests were made at Wembley and in central London.

Ultimately of course, blame for these disastrous events lies with the many thousands of drunken hooligans and thugs who inflicted themselves on London and indeed caused mayhem in other towns and cities such as Maidstone where officers were attacked by drunken crowds.

Hopefully, in the fullness of time, the negative memories of these championships will fade as far as England are concerned and it will be the achievements on and off the field by England’s young ‘band of brothers’ which will be remembered.  

Chris Hobbs is a former Met officer who worked in Special Branch

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Ordered by:
A-non-e-mouse - Thu, 15 July 2021

There were sufficient warning signs that this was going to be the case. Perhaps one might question Wembley's safety certificate in future as an option to ensure such games are policed appropriately.