Fan Protests: Benefits and Risks
Football fans are not ones for hiding their feelings when results are not coming and the owners, boards and managers of their clubs are making decisions the fans don’t agree with. Occasionally frustrations reach boiling point and both individual fans and fan organisations decide to take action in protest.
There have been many memorable protests including the throwing of tennis balls onto the pitch by Dortmund fans in 2016, Blackburn fans releasing a chicken onto the pitch in 2012 and Barcelona defector Luis Figo having a pig’s head thrown at him when he returned to play against his former club in 2002. Birmingham City has seen its fair share of fan protests over the years and the run of form towards the end of the 19/20 season and the poor start to the 20/21 campaign has seen the holding up of cards by fans which amounted to showing Dong the ‘red card’. Later in the 19/20 season fans attempted to prevent the owner’s car from entering St Andrews. The owners remain firmly entrenched so the effect of such action isn’t immediately obvious. However, with Blues reaching a concerningly low point following defeat at the hands of Luton, a single fan decided it was time to send a message to the team. John Fell produced a banner with a very clear message aimed not at the owners or the board, but at those playing for the club.
The banner was placed at the Wast Hills training ground. The players and staff noticed and a number of Blues players went on to share pictures of the banner via their social media accounts. Next game out the Boys in Royal Blue defeated Sheffield Wednesday and lifted themselves out of the drop zone. Defeat to Norwich next time out was hardly unexpected but the team played with grit and determination and despite the setback, went on to convincingly beat QPR the following weekend. Surely a simple statement to the players from a fan outlining what the team means to us all and what our expectations are of those who get to wear the shirt couldn’t make a difference? Well just possibly…
Both the Blues Captain Harlee Dean and manager Aitor Karanka have made reference to the banner in recent days. Dean, speaking to BirminghamLive (who reprinted the message in full) said the following;
“We need to pick confidence up, that is what we tried to do since the Millwall game, especially knowing this game was so important. It was a nice touch outside the training ground, we all made the point of reading it and taking it in.”
“I can’t speak for other people, now I am older I would say it doesn’t affect me – but it definitely does, still.”
Karanka, not exactly a fan favourite at present, had this to say;
“When we left the training ground there was a banner from the supporters, trusting them, believing in them and its vital because when you can’t have them in the stands, you feel they are behind you and trusting you.”
So perhaps this was what was needed? As Karanka says, when the fans can’t come to the ground to cheer the team on, a message like that penned by John Fell might be just what the team needed. Time will tell but the determination and energy seen on the pitch since the message reached the players has been much improved. On balance this was a well-intentioned and well received example of fan activism that clearly hit home.
But with the threat of relegation continuing to hang over St Andrews like a black cloud and the dotted line representing an ignominious exit from the second tier too close for comfort, the good will and support of the fans is far from guaranteed. Should the results falter, displays of fan frustration can be expected. Even whilst absent from the grounds, fans are still paying for pay for view, replica shirts and all manner of Blues merchandise. Not to mention the fact that many fans will have paid for tickets for years and organised their lives around fixtures. With that in mind fans have the right to have their say and to make their feelings known when the Club fails to deliver. But what is acceptable and what are the potential consequences of taking direct action?
Displaying posters and banners in a public place.....(Read more)
Much of the legislation that applies to behaviour and spoken words also applies to printed material. As John’s example highlights, banners can be an effective way of reaching the Club and the players but care should be taken to avoid language that may fall foul of public order legislation. One of the most common acts under which an individual could be prosecuted is the Public Order Act of 1986. Section 5(1) reads;
(1) A person is guilty of an offence if he/she:
(a) uses threatening [or abusive] words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening [or abusive], within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby
What counts as threatening (or abusive) words or behaviour is, to a degree, open to interpretation but you can assume threats towards the owner, swearing at players or Club staff or displaying an offensive message will do the trick. Police tolerances do fluctuate dependant on the situation so the use of industrial language and degree of hostility may be deemed acceptable during a game but the same words or behaviour outside the ground after the fixture where the message becomes a lot more direct and personal, may result in further action.
It should be noted that whilst in its purest form, Section 5 is a relatively low-level offence, it can be racially or religiously aggravated. If this is found to be the case the seriousness increases considerably as do the penalties if found guilty. Reference to players, managers or owners’ cultural heritage should be avoided at all costs. An innocuous statement or even a strong message of dissatisfaction in the intended recipients own language is a different matter. It’s the harassment, alarm and distress and the perception that it is racially (or religiously) motivated that is key.
Beyond Section 5 of the Public Order Act, threats against an individual or a group of individuals with the intent that they should be alarmed or distressed, may fall into Section 4 which again is a more serious offence.
Throwing items onto the pitch.....(Read more)
As mentioned above other fan protests have involved throwing items onto the pitch. Tennis balls and a live chicken were clearly not intended to cause harm. I am deliberately avoiding the sort of behaviour that is perceived as violence such as throwing coins bottles and flares, I am focusing here on items thrown to make a point as part of a protest. Regardless of the intent, throwing anything is an offence under the Football (offences) Act 1991. It reads as follows:
It is an offence for a person at a designated football match to throw anything at or towards—
- the playing area, or any area adjacent to the playing area to which spectators are not generally admitted, or
- any area in which spectators or other persons are or may be present, without lawful authority or lawful excuse (which shall be for him to prove)
Any object thrown onto the pitch during play is likely to represent a hazard to the players and the last thing we would want to see is one of the squad tripping over a chicken!
Equally, venturing onto the playing area for any reason other than an emergency in the stands will invoke the Football Act and is also an offence. So, running over to the dugout to provide Mr Karanka with guidance as to how he should be setting the formation is likely to result in a swift exit from the ground.
Physical Protests.....(Read more)
Protesting outside the ground, particularly where obstruction of roads is involved, will fall under the Highways Act and whilst police are likely to simply clear the carriageway, failure to move when directed to do so would be an offence.
A fan protest involving the road network, a march for example, is achievable and under the Human Rights Act (freedom of expression and assembly) may even be supported, if not explicitly sanctioned, by police as would an assembly and stationary protest at or close to the ground providing criminal offences are not committed. Negotiation with and notification of match commanders is a requirement. If a fan group felt such action was necessary, it is recommended that the organisers consult Sections 11 and 14 of the Public Order Act to ensure they are acting lawfully and fulfilling their responsibilities. It is worth noting that no matter the strength of feeling under the current social distancing rules, any gathering will be subject to high levels of scrutiny and those attending and organising may fall foul of the legislation relating to the pandemic.
Taking the Knee (Black Lives Matter).....(Read more)
Another interesting development that has occurred whilst fans have been absent is the taking of the knee before the game begins. A number of clubs have moved away from this, however Birmingham City FC players are continuing to observe the ritual and may continue to do so once fans are allowed back in. There are several views on this ranging from fully supportive to equally valid concerns around the politicisation of the sport. Regardless in the current climate and vocalisation of an objection to the taking of the knee is likely to be met by sanctions from the club. Some clubs have chosen to eject and ban fans for booing during the taking of the knee. Regardless of individuals views, Clubs are keen to ensure they are seen to take action if objections to taking the knee are voiced. It is not for the Trust to advise either way but beware of the current climate and the potential consequences of expressing an objection to the practice.
Blues Trust recognise the importance of tackling racism within football. The Trust supports the players and the Clubs right to express their views and to take a stand against racism. The Trust does not condone booing or any other expression against the taking of the knee.
Football Banning Orders.....(Read more)
It should be noted that any criminal offence committed at the ground or even in the locality on match days (and even at other times) are likely to invoke Section 14 of the Football Spectators Act 1989 and will almost certainly result in either a blanket ban from future matches (and limitations on international travel) or a ban from the Club. A conviction for a criminal offence is not necessary, an application for a banning order can be made via the Civil Court even when the individual is not ultimately prosecuted for an offence.
Blues Trust recognise the importance of fan protest and we are generally supportive of fan activism. Whilst the results of fan activism may not be immediately tangible, it is vital that fans who care deeply for the Club are able to express themselves. We will offer our support and advice to anyone seeking to mount a protest providing they are behaving responsibly and legally.
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