Prague is one of the most picturesque cities in Europe, a great place to enjoy a weekend away, but from the perspective of the man charged with policing English football supporters, this Friday is most certainly not the time nor the place to stage an England Euro 2020 qualifier against the Czech Republic.
The Czech Republic capital is the latest city having to brace itself for a visit from England’s sizeable travelling contingent for the next round of Euro 2020 qualifying (Stream live in U.S.: Friday, 2.45 p.m. ET, ESPN+). The prospect of more than 5,000 English fans according to FA sources — with 3,700 tickets having been sold through official channels — massing in a city that has become synonymous with alcohol-fuelled “stag dos” arriving on low-cost flights from the United Kingdom is one that has caused considerable alarm within the English FA.
“I wrote to UEFA asking them to reconsider the Friday night kick-off,” said Mark Roberts, the national lead police officer for football in England. “That’s not something we’ve been able to do.
“I think it’s unfortunate because you can foresee the risk. We’d much rather prevent a situation developing than try to manage it on the night and regret it afterwards.”
“I have been to Prague three times now over the past 6-8 months to discuss this [security] operation and I’m concerned. I’d say I’m extremely concerned,” Tony Conniford, the FA’s Head of Team and Corporate Security, told ESPN FC.
“Prague has all the elements. Amsterdam on a Friday night [in 2018] was probably worse, but every England overseas match is a risk because it can go wrong. That is what history has taught me.”
In June, children in the Portuguese city of Guimaraes were given an unexpected day off school during the UEFA Nations League tournament, but the decision had nothing to do with watching Cristiano Ronaldo play for Portugal. The children of Guimaraes were told to stay at home because England were in town or, more specifically, England football fans.
During the two nights before the Nations League semifinal between England and the Netherlands at Estadio D. Afonso Henriques, English football supporters clashed with riot police in nearby Porto. It’s just the latest chapter to the story of disorder and destruction in whichever European city is unfortunate enough to host a group of people who have become an embarrassment not only to the English Football Association, but also to the country they claim to represent.
Outbreaks of trouble when England play abroad — games in central and Western Europe are the biggest flash points due to ease of travel — have become a regular occurrence. There were widespread battles with police and Russia fans in Marseille at Euro 2016. In March 2018, before a friendly against the Netherlands, bicycles were thrown into Amsterdam canals and tourists on boats were pelted with bottles from bridges as Dutch police detained over 100 English supporters following outbreaks of disorder. Twelve months earlier, in Dortmund, England fans sang about the Second World War and the Royal Air Force “shooting down German bombers” as Lukas Podolski, playing in his final international game, was jeered by the visiting contingent during a friendly against Germany.
The latter is no big deal, perhaps, as football fans routinely jeer opposing players. But considering that the game was staged specifically as a celebration of Podolski’s international career, the boorish behaviour of the England supporters stood out. But this is the vibe that comes with England away days: songs insulting the Pope, racially motivated chanting and taunts directed at the Taliban and Irish Republican Army [IRA] are often heard in the stadiums and bars of any city hosting England supporters. Songs about the players or the team? Not so much.
What was once described as the “English disease” (hooliganism connected to English football teams) has changed over the years from organised fighting into groups of young men, travelling in small groups, mixing obnoxious behaviour with heavy drinking, but it is a stain on the English game all the same.
The scourge of organised hooliganism has largely been eradicated, but the problem now is one of English fans exporting the “laddish” Friday night antics seen in town centres throughout the country — binge drinking, fighting and damage to bars, cars and property — to continental cities. The Football Association are desperate to eradicate it, but even those charged with doing that don’t have all the answers.
Finding a solution is the biggest challenge facing the FA and Conniford, who liaise closely with the police and supporters’ groups in an attempt to minimise what has become a resurgent problem, albeit one that has ebbed and flowed over the years.
The Premier League, the shop window of English football, offers a slick, safe and inclusive image to the world. Violence and disorder within Premier League stadia has now been largely eradicated due to all-seater stadia, investment in stewarding, the use of CCTV cameras and the strong action by the courts. If you run onto a pitch, throw an object or engage in discriminatory chanting at a Premier League stadium, there is a very good chance you will be caught on camera and arrested.
During the 1970s and 1980s, however, hooliganism in English football led to running battles at stadiums, on trains and in towns and cities, between groups attached to clubs, such as the Chelsea Headhunters, the Inter City Firm (West Ham) and the Gremlins (Newcastle United). England games were also marred by hooliganism during this period, with hundreds going on the rampage in Luxembourg in November 1983 following an international fixture in the country. When 39 Juventus supporters died at the 1985 European Cup final at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, after a wall collapsed under the weight of Italians attempting to escape charging Liverpool fans, English clubs were banned from European competition for five years due to the repeated outbreaks of violence that accompanied their teams’ fixtures on the continent.
The abandonment of a friendly international in Dublin between the Republic of Ireland and England in February 1995, when English supporters ripped out seats and hurled them at Irish fans below, highlighted that the problem had not gone away since Heysel, but Conniford says he believes that today’s issues are different from those of more than 20 years ago.
“I’ve been doing this since 1996, working with the National Criminal Intelligence Service, and back in those days, you had the hardcore hooligan groups,” Conniford said. “They were recognised, police spotting intelligence teams followed them around the country and it was very well-managed, intelligence-wise. But after Euro 2000, when there were big problems in Charleroi [Belgium], we had politicians saying ‘enough is enough, we are going to do something.’
“That’s when we got the Football Disorder Act, which brought about the banning orders that allow the authorities to take away a person’s passport to prevent them attending games overseas. That Act took the sting out of those groups. We could immediately identify the ringleaders and they all got banning orders. We saw a sea-change starting to happen because we had about 3,000 people on banning orders, so there was a huge group that had been taken out of the mix who had previously followed England.”
But after seeing the success of the football banning orders in the early part of the last decade, when a more diverse, inclusive crowd of supporters followed England abroad, the scene has now regressed.
If you go back to Euro 2004, you will see loads of women and kids [in the crowd],” Conniford said. “Now dig out a similar crowd for an away fixture and what you will see is a group of mainly white, middle-aged or teenage men. We get people now, the older types who followed England in the bad old days, coming up to us saying, ‘You need to sort that lot out, they don’t care.’ We have ended up with a group that doesn’t seem to have any cut-off point as to what is or isn’t acceptable.
“But look at what is happening in football and tell me it’s not happening everywhere in this country. Horse racing, for instance. I have lost count the number of times I have watched the news and seen fights at horse racing through drinking.
“It just seems to be a melting pot for young groups of lads, very similar to football, who get tanked up and anything goes.”
Flags at England fixtures rarely link fans to the big Premier League clubs or major cities. While some parties travel, most of the representation is for clubs from the lower leagues or towns where following England overseas is the only realistic opportunity to see football away from home. Within that, there is also the chance to feel part of something exciting and, perversely, patriotic.
“They think they are representing their country,” Conniford said. “When they are in a group, that gives them strength.
“Monday to Friday, you could be most insignificant person on the planet, but when you come together, nobody cares what job you do, who you’re married to, how many kids you have, how much money you have, you are one of the lads. Being in a group makes them feel like they are part of something.
“We hear lots of chants about the Taliban, about the IRA, but half of these people weren’t even born during The Troubles, so they don’t even know what they are singing about. But they are chanting about stuff because they think they are representing England overseas. They suddenly see themselves almost like soldiers, because they think they are representing the country.”
Perhaps echoing Conniford’s claim that many travelling England supporters see themselves as “soldiers,” flags and banners have begun to appear carrying symbols such as regimental logos, the RAF roundel and the poppy, the latter a non-political symbol of remembrance for those killed in conflict. When it comes to following the England national team, the lines are worryingly blurred.
“The poppy is a sign of remembrance and hope for a peaceful future,” a spokesperson for the Royal British Legion told ESPN FC. “If it is being used in this spirit, then we regard it as appropriate. If it is being used to promote some other message, then we would ask for it to be stopped.”
For the law-abiding England supporter, travelling to an away game comes at the cost of having to look over their shoulder for potential trouble, being prepared for heavy-handed policing and having to steer clear of city centres, just in case.
“At the World Cup in Russia, we had a brilliant time,” Harpreet Robinson, Head of England Supporters Travel Club [ESTC], told ESPN FC. “There were no issues because those who might go looking for trouble stayed away.
“But with Portugal in the summer, and now Prague, there are obviously concerns. The vast majority of fans who travel to watch England just do not want to be associated with the trouble that some elements cause. Sometimes, though, you have to manage your trips in a different way, be sensible with your plans and stay outside the city, at the same time as trying to enjoy the country you are visiting.”
The ESTC, run by the Football Association, now has 15,000 members, all of whom must submit themselves to police checks before being allowed to join.
“If you have a conviction for any football-related criminality, you won’t join our club,” Conniford said.
The big problem for the FA, however, is that fans cannot be stopped from travelling unless they have a conviction that has led to a banning order. They can impose tough measures on members of the ESTC, but fans who just to go to a foreign city, drink, cause trouble and watch the game in a bar? They slip through the net.
“We can’t stop someone travelling who thinks, ‘I’m not bothered if I go to the game or not because I’m with my mates in Prague or Lisbon and getting [drunk], I couldn’t care what the FA do,'” Conniford said.
Even those detained while causing trouble abroad can escape a banning order if the local police fail to use their powers to the full.
Prior to the Nations League finals, a campaign called “Don’t Be That Idiot” was promoted by the FA with the aim of persuading those intent on trouble to think again. Harry Maguire, the England defender who watched Euro 2016 among the travelling supporters, added his backing to the initiative, telling fans it was “time for them to show off the pitch, and us to show on the pitch, that we’re a country moving forward.”
Judging by the violence in Porto, that message fell on deaf ears, and despite their efforts, with the banning orders and tightly policed Travel Club, Conniford admits that the FA’s powers are limited.
“In Amsterdam last year, we had 114 people carted off, but out of the 114, only 54 were arrested.” Conniford said. “A very small portion — 14 [people] — were travel club members and we banned them immediately, but that’s all we could do. We ban people just for being obnoxious, we just don’t want it. But if you have been banned by the FA, you can still travel. The only way to stop them is taking their passport away, but you can only do that with a banning order.”
Conniford said alcohol plays a major role.
“When we are talking about England away — we don’t see it on a routine Premier League weekend because people maybe have a couple of drinks and that’s it — they are going for 48 hours and it’s a stag do [bachelor party] or weekend away,” he said.
That is the fear ahead of Prague this weekend. It is easy to get to, alcohol is in plentiful supply and the game is being played on a Friday night so unlike the clash against Bulgaria in Sofia on Monday, those making the short journey to the Czech Republic — roughly a 90-minute flight from London — do not have to race back to work the following morning.
It will be a big test for the England supporters, but few expect them to pass it.
“I remember being in Rossio Square in Lisbon in 2004,” Conniford said. “England fans started to kick off a bit but another group of fans started to say, ‘Pack it in, we are being treated really well’ and that killed it.
“Back then, that was a turning point, but we haven’t got to that stage again yet.”