An overview of how the match-day policing works in English football

Published 03 May 2016 By: Chris Davies


In 1314, Edward II banned football in its rudimentary form for fear that it would cause social unrest. In the intervening 700 years, football has been linked with acts of “disorder” (see below) with the high watermark undoubtedly being the violence between rival “firms" in the 1980s. The risk of disorder has necessitated police presence on match day for many years and a suite of legislation has developed to assist the police in dealing with disorder.

This article examines the role of the police in English football today. It gives recent examples of disorder, explains the legal requirement for match day policing, and examines the match day policing process (including police powers, football specific offences, football banning orders and the cost of policing).

Throughout this article, “disorder” is used as a catch-all term to denote acts of criminal behaviour by supporters at or in connection with football matches unless otherwise stated. “Disorder” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as: 

Disturbance, commotion, tumult; esp. a breach of public order, riot, mutiny, outrage”.


Recent examples of disorderly behaviour

The peak of large-scale football related public disorder appears to be behind us. However, it is still rare (if not unprecedented) for a football season to pass by without some level of disorder or the occurrence of ugly incidents. Recent highly publicised examples include:

  • the football banning orders imposed on four supporters of Chelsea Football Club for racially abusing a man on the Paris Metro;1
  • the spike in coin throwing2 including the West Bromwich Albion player, Chris Brunt, being hit in the face by coins thrown by supporters of his own club in February 2016;3 and
  • the pitch-side fighting and disorder outside the stadium at Loftus Road at the Queens Park Rangers v Birmingham City match in February 2016.4

Despite these recent examples, Home Office statistics5 in relation to football related arrests and football banning orders suggests that the situation in English football might be improving.

The latest figures show that there were 2,181 football banning orders (explained below) in force as at 3 September 2014,6 compared with 3,174 as at 29 November 2011,7 representing a drop of 31%.

Football related arrests are also on a steady decline since the 2010/11 season, with the exception of the 2012 to 2013 seasons which recorded a slight increase.8 The statistics show that there were 1,873 football related arrests during the 2014/15 season,9 a reduction of 18% on the previous season and down from the 2010/11 season when football related arrests peaked at 3,089.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, of those arrests “the three most common offence types were public disorder (34%), alcohol offences (22%) and violent disorder (16%)”.10 Whilst the football related disorder statistics are heading in the right direction and, as the Home Office statistics point out, the figures for the 2014/15 season amount to 4.9 football-related arrests per 100,000 attendees11, it is clear that the occasion of a football match still results in disorder.


The legal requirement for police involvement

Before examining football related offences and football banning orders, it is worth examining why the police are required to attend football matches where there is a risk of disorder; and why it is that match day stewards (who may be employees of or contracted to the club) alone cannot oversee proceedings and attend to problems.

The answer is three-fold. First, the police are under a common law duty to keep the peace, prevent the commission of crime and protect property. As Viscount Cave LC said in the leading case of Glasbrook Bros Ltd v Glamorgan County Council:

"No doubt there is an absolute and unconditional obligation binding the police authorities to take all steps which appear to seem to be necessary for keeping the peace, for preventing crime or for protecting property from criminal injury…"12

Accordingly, where a football match represents a risk of disorder, the local constabulary will be under an obligation to attend to fulfil its common law duty.

Secondly, the police have specific powers which can only be exercised by the police13 (as opposed to match-day stewards). These powers include the power of arrest14 and stop and search15 which are invoked by the police in conjunction with their specialist skills, knowledge and operational expertise. The police effectively have a monopoly over the exercise of those powers.

Thirdly, there is a geographical reason why a police presence is required on match day. The club will employ stewards to assist with the match day ingress and egress of supporters into the stadium and to maintain safety inside the stadium.16 The stewards’ powers will be incorporated into the ticketing terms and conditions and typically include a further prohibition on football related offences (see below), an obligation to comply with instructions from a steward and an absolute discretion for club stewards to eject individuals from the stadium.

However, club stewards will only have such powers against supporters within the confines of the stadium – they are essentially contractual in nature. These powers do not extend outside of the private land owned, leased or controlled by the club. The club relies on the police to exercise their powers on third party owned carparks, the public highways and other public land.

In theory and often in reality, the match day safety and policing operation should be one seamless operation. The club and local constabulary typically enter into a Statement of Intent that sets out the respective responsibilities and understanding of the parties in relation to the match day operation.

Typically, the policing operation will be overseen by a match day commander based in a command centre within the stadium (and usually within sight of the pitch and stands).


The match-day policing process

On the basis of the above, it is clear that a football match that poses a risk of disorder will necessitate a police presence both on a practical and legal basis. But how is this presence determined?

General Safety Certificates

The level of risk for each match will be determined in advance. Each stadium will have a Safety Advisory Group. The stadium Safety Advisory Group is a non-statutory advisory entity chaired by the Local Authority that will include the club, the police and local emergency services as members. The Local Authority will receive advice from the Safety Advisory Group as to the risk of disorder and will determine issues relating to the General Safety Certificate. The General Safety Certificate is a legislative requirement (under Section 1, Safety of Sports Ground Act 1975) before football can take place at a designated stadium with a capacity for more than 10,000 spectators.17

The Risk Categories of Disorder

In the context of previous experience and any specific intelligence gathered about the match, the police will allocate a “risk category” for each match. In the author's experience, the relevant Club may have input as to the correct categorisation of matches.

These risk categories will usually include “CS” being Club Security only, “Category A” being the lowest risk of disorder, “Category B” being a medium risk of disorder and “Category C” being the highest risk of disorder. Each risk category can be increased by the addition of the affix “IR” meaning “increased risk” so that “Category CIR” reflects the highest risk of disorder.

The “risk category” assigned to each match is important as it will determine three things. These are:

  1. The likelihood of disorder;
  2. The necessary police deployments and operational steps to be taken to prevent disorder.18 The deployments inside and outside the stadium increase with the increase of the risk of disorder; and
  3. The cost of the police operation that will be payable by the club as Special Police Services pursuant to section 25, Police Act 199619 (see below for further detail).

If the risk category is not agreed by the club, it will usually make representations to the Safety Advisory Group and the police may ask that the Local Authority amend or revoke the General Safety Certificate so as to prevent football taking place at the stadium.

If the club, police or other interested party is dissatisfied with an omission or inclusion in the terms of the General Safety Certificate, that interested party may make an application to Court for that omission or inclusion to be rectified.20 The Local Authority or other interested party will have a further right of appeal to the Crown Court.21

Pending any challenge to the risk categorisation of a match or the terms of the General Safety Certificate, the police will then produce detailed Operational Orders for each match setting out the location of deployments before, during and after the match. These Operational Orders are not always disclosed to the Club in full.

The legislation governing football related offences

Having considered the interaction between the police and the club, we now turn to the general and specific football related offences that will be relevant to the police on match day. Many of the statutory offences were enacted in the 1980s in response to the football-related disorder witnessed during that era.

General disorder offences are legislated for under:

  1. Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (including assault and wounding);
  2. Criminal Justice Act 1988 (common assault); and
  3. Public Order Act 1986 (including harassment and racially motivated hatred).

In addition, specific legislation exists that covers the following offences committed in a footballing context. These include:

  1. Throwing any object at or towards the pitch or spectator areas (Section 2, Football (Offences) Act 1991).
  2. Indecent or racist chanting (Section 3, Football (Offences) Act 1991).
  3. Entering the pitch without lawful authority or excuse (Section 4, Football (Offences) Act 1991).
  4. Entering or attempting to enter a stadium when in possession of alcohol (Section 2(1), Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Act 1985).
  5. Possession of alcohol on trains, coaches and other non-public service vehicles when travelling to a football match (Section 1 and 1A, Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Act 1985).
  6. Being drunk at a designated sporting event (Section 2(2), Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Act 1985).
  7. Possession of a firework, flare or other pyrotechnical device (Section 2A, Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Act 1985).
  8. Ticket touting (Section 166, Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994).

A person found guilty of a football specific offence will be liable on summary conviction to a fine (but not imprisonment).

Football Banning Orders

In addition to the fines for football specific offences, the Football Spectators Act 1989 (the “1989 Act”) provides that certain “relevant offences” should be accompanied by a “football banning order”.22

As the Crown Prosecution Service stated in the context of “risk supporters” (i.e. a person, known or not, who can be regarded as posing a possible risk to public order or antisocial behaviour, whether planned or spontaneous, at or in connection with a football event23):

For most risk supporters it is the thought of receiving a football banning order that they fear most and, as such, its deterrent effect cannot be under-estimated.24

“Relevant offence” for the purposes of football banning orders is defined in the 1989 Act by reference to a list of offences in Schedule 1. The Schedule should be consulted for the detail of the offences. Suffice to say that the list includes most of the offences listed above which are committed in a football context.

The 1989 Act places some unusually strict obligations on the Courts in relation to the application of a football banning order. For example, section 14A(2) places an obligation on the Court to impose a football banning order on a person convicted of a “relevant offence” where:

the court is satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to believe that making a banning order would help to prevent violence or disorder at or in connection with any regulated football matches, it must make such an order in respect of the offender.25

Furthermore, if the Court decides not to make a football banning order it must explain why in open Court. Section 14A(2) states:

If the court is not so satisfied, it must in open court state that fact and give its reasons.

In addition, the relevant chief police officer or the Director of Public Prosecutions may make an application to Court for a banning order to be imposed. This does not require there to be a “relevant offence” as is required pursuant to section 14A of the Act. They will have such a power if:

the respondent has at any time caused or contributed to any violence or disorder in the United Kingdom or elsewhere.” (Section 14B(1), 1989 Act).

The terms of a banning order can be fairly draconian. Section 14E provides that if a football banning order is made it “must”:

  • require the person subject to the order to report initially at a police station . . . specified in the order within the period of five days beginning with the day on which the order is made.” (section 14E(2)).
  • require the person subject to the order to give notification of the events mentioned in subsection (2B)” (section 14E(2A)) including but not limited to changes of name, address, any appeals made in relation to the order, receipt of a new passport and losing a passport.
  • impose a requirement as to the surrender in accordance with this Part, in connection with regulated football matches outside the United Kingdom, of the [passport] of the person subject to the order.” (section 14(3)).

Additionally, the Court has broad powers to “impose additional requirements on the person subject to the order in relation to regulated football matches” if it thinks fit, pursuant to section 14G. This might include restricting the areas that a person subject to a banning order can attend in relation to a specified match.

In respect of the length of a football banning order, where the offence results in a football banning order and a sentence of imprisonment taking immediate effect, the minimum term of a football banning order is six years and the maximum is ten years. In all other circumstances, the minimum is 3 years and the maximum is 5 years (see section 14F).

The Football Banning Orders Authority will be notified if a football banning order is granted or refused. The person subject to a football banning order will have a right of appeal pursuant to section 23, the 1989 Act. It is an offence to fail to comply with any requirement of the football banning order and a person guilty of that offence will be liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months and/or a fine.

It is clear that the 1989 Act provides additional powerful sanctions against those who engage in football related disorder including limiting the freedom of individuals convicted of an offence which is only ordinarily punishable by a fine. The deterrent impact of football banning orders appears to be evidenced by the decrease in levels of football related disorder reflected in the Home Office statistics quoted above. Of course, this is one of many reasons why there has been a decrease in football related disorder, other examples being advances in information and intelligence gathering and community engagement.


The Cost of Policing

As discussed above, a police presence is a necessity at football matches that pose a risk of disorder. The cost of match day policing has been a controversial issue in recent years, not least due to the cuts to police budgets as a result of the economic situation.

The police, the Home Affairs Committee26 and members of the London Assembly27 have argued that football clubs should pay for increased or all police deployments on match day. The Metropolitan Police published its response to a Freedom of Information Act Request which shows a decline in contributions by clubs towards the cost of match day policing.28

This is presumably as a result of the Leeds United case (mentioned above). By way of example, Arsenal Football Club’s policing bill decreased from £1.5 million in the 2008/09 season (when the police contributed £2.1m) to £983,000 in the 2011/12 season (when the police contributed £1,075,467).29

This is a drop from Arsenal contributing 66% to 48.7% of the police costs. The argument of the police appears to be that football is rich, football needs the police because it has a problem with violence, and, therefore, football should pay for the full cost of policing football matches.30 This moral argument might be appealing, however, as Lord Justice Neill remarked in his judgment in Harris v Sheffield United:31

"that is not the law".

Following the Leeds United v West Yorkshire Police32 case, it is clear that the police can only charge clubs for police officers deployed on land that is owned, leased or controlled by the club pursuant to section 25, Police Act 1996.

The cost of additional deployments will be covered by the local constabulary. Any ability to charge the club (or any private individuals) for those additional deployments outwith the land owned, leased or controlled by the club will require a change to the existing legislation.

There has been little political will to make this change given that the additional cost of policing would be passed on by the club to supporters by way of ticket price increases. This is particularly the case in circumstances where ticket prices in the Premier League are a contentious issue33 and where the club, players and supporters pay taxes which are, in part, to fund the provision of police services.



It is clear that the police and the legislative framework outlined above has had a significant impact in reducing the disorder witnessed in the 1980s and 1990s. Of course, there are other factors which have resulted in the decrease of football related disorder including steps taken by football clubs, the police and the wider football community to eradicate disorder from the beautiful game.

By way of example, clubs take independent steps to ban supporters from attending matches, The Football Association has the power to discipline clubs if supporters cause disorder34 and regulators such as UEFA35 and FIFA have the ultimate sanction of excluding clubs from their events (as happened following the Heysel Disaster when all English clubs were banned from European competitions for a period of five years36). In addition to punishment and deterrent factors, football clubs and the Police have become better at engaging with the community including supporter groups and the Police have advanced tactics to deal with crowds on match day.

There has been significant progress in reducing football related disorder in the last thirty years. However, there is still some way to go before the link between football and disorder disappears completely.


Related Articles


Chris Davies

Chris Davies

Chris is a commercial litigator in Burges Salmon's dispute resolution team with specialised experience in sports sector disputes. He has advised players, agents, clubs, national and international associations and governing bodies.

  • This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.