We may have witnessed the last ‘Bubble’ match in British football, and if so, not before time. There was just one in 2017, the 23 August derby between Blackburn Rovers and Burnley. The Manifesto Club has had a campaign to end this iniquitous system of policing football fans for five years since our initial report in April 2012, ‘Criminalising Football Fans: The Case Against Bubble Matches’.
Football fans travelling to away matches under bubble conditions have had severe restrictions placed upon their method of travel, and the time they would have to go to the football ground and leave it. Fans could only travel to and from a match on designated coaches from designated locations at designated times, returning the same way. Public transport or car travel is banned. Bubble matches treated all away supporters as quasi-criminals, taking away some of the most basic freedoms we take for granted in all other aspects of life and in other spectator sports.
As with all major sporting events there can be troublemakers and over-exuberant behaviour that gets out of hand. Just look at the arrest figures for Royal Ascot and the Derby horse race meetings. But for all football fans travelling to an away match to be treated as troublemakers and potential criminals is wrong and counterproductive. It provokes a negative reaction to the presumption of guilt and foments a lack of trust between police and stewards on the one hand and law-abiding supporters on the other.
At the heart of this police policy is an attempt to shirk the police’s responsibility to tackle criminal behaviour as it occurs, and instead to throw a blanket of bans and restrictions, including the sale of tickets, over all the away football fans travelling to the match. It may be convenient for the police but is an inversion of natural justice and Britain’s presumption of innocence unless and until guilt is proven. Arguably, it simply encouraged bad behaviour.
The decline of the bubble match is the result of heavy criticism on some high profile occasions by politicians, fans groups and even Police Commissioners. There may have been a realisation that going after real troublemakers rather than blanket measures would ultimately mean safer matches and more responsible behaviour.
The decision taken early in 2017 to not impose bubble restrictions on November’s non- League level match between Chester and Wrexham, was a significant step forward. It’s one of the regular fixtures that has been designated a bubble match, in its case since 2013, as has the reverse fixture at Wrexham. It’s worth remembering that this is a fixture that attracts just a few thousand spectators and should be capable of being policed in the normal way that large crowds are policed.
A significant amount of credit for the long fight against bubble matches must go to the Football Supporters Federation, which has highlighted the unfairness of the bubble conditions, particularly through its ‘Watching Football Is Not a Crime‘ campaign.
But separate laws for football fans remain in place and are unfair and mostly needless. The Manifesto Club continues to oppose this discrimination and the 11 laws which apply only to football supporters. You can read more about this on our site, Football Fans Not Criminals.
But hopefully this particular bubble has finally burst.
Peter Lloyd is author of the Manifesto Club report Criminalising Football Fans – The Case Against Bubble Matches.