The brawl which left two men lying on a street in Watford, one apparently unconscious with blood streaming down his face, was a mere footnote to the widening narrative of disorder in football.
One Watford fan tended to the seriously injured man, another screamed ‘you f****** coward’ and a group of Everton fans ran away from the scene into the town centre. Paramedics were called. The injured, it later transpired, were a father and son. And the world quickly moved on.
Another despicable piece of disorder that Saturday afternoon in January — two Southampton fans mocking the death of Cardiff striker Emiliano Sala before a match between the two teams — nudged the Watford fight to the margins of the news cycle.
There was an altercation outside Watford’s Vicarage Road when they played Everton in January
Merseyside Police were certainly interested, though. The incident came two weeks after a clash between Everton and Millwall fans in which the visiting contingent were not, in the words of one senior police officer familiar with the operation, ‘just a nice crowd looking for a spot to have a picnic’.
Some of the Everton fans involved belonged to the club’s ‘risk group’ of fans known as the ‘County Road Cutters’. They had tried to attack a Millwall pub before the fight which saw a fan’s face slashed.
These events might all sound like a throwback to the 1970s days of open football warfare, though another factor — the ready supply of cocaine — plays a new and significant part in the story.
One of the four Liverpudlian men arrested and cautioned after the Watford incident was cautioned for affray and possession of cannabis. Another was bailed in connection with violent disorder, possession of cocaine and grievous bodily harm.
Three days after the Watford episode, police raided two Everton coaches set to leave for a midweek game at Cardiff City. Substantial quantities of cocaine were seized. One of the drivers was arrested on suspicion of drug-driving.
The incidents illustrate cocaine’s role in rising levels of disorder at football grounds. There was a 36 per cent jump in the 2016-17 season and a further increase last year.
‘The quantity of cocaine is difficult to assess,’ Deputy Chief Constable Mark Roberts, the National Police Chiefs’ Council football policing lead, told Sportsmail.
‘Unless you arrest them and drug test them or find them in possession, you don’t know. But we do think the rise in violence is linked to a parallel rise in cocaine use.’
The attack on Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish by a Birmingham City supporter last week illustrated the consequences of clubs cutting costs by using stewards rather than police. Even the Premier League now admits that the game has gone too far in its moves to save on police costs.
The cocaine problem reveals the same issue, in microcosm. While police can arrest and charge those found in possession, a security firm can only refuse entry to a ground if they find a cocaine packet. That, says one police source, is counter-productive. ‘You just end up with a coked-up, frustrated fan on the outside of the ground, who becomes a problem for someone else.’
The cocaine blight reflects the increasing prevalence and use of cocaine in society as a whole. Home Office figures show that six per cent of people aged 16-59 took cocaine in 2017-18, up from 2.4 per cent in 2013-14.
Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish (left) was attacked by a fan on the pitch at Birmingham City
‘It’s widely available, in cheaper and purer form,’ said Oxford University anthropologist Dr Martha Newson. ‘It’s purchasable on the dark web and can be delivered to the door. No knowledge of the criminal underworld is needed and it transcends class divisions.’
Dr Newson’s research has charted the way that football violence allows fans to conform to ‘group identities’ as part of a tribal ‘attack and defend’ psychology.
Cocaine, she said, fuels that process. ‘The combination of cocaine inflating someone’s ego and a fan tribe culture, where group identity is so essential, creates a lethal combination,’ she added.
Use of the drug does not always mean a descent into violence or a pitch invasion. But Sportsmail is aware of flagrant and undetected use of the drug around grounds.
In a pub near one Premier League top-six club, supporters have been seen snorting cocaine off keys, credit cards and their hands. In a stairwell at another top-six venue, a group of six well-spoken fans gathered to share more of the drug at half-time. They did not even bother to seek out the seclusion of the toilets.
A newspaper investigation into the problem saw toilet cubicles at Scottish games involving Celtic, Rangers, Hearts, Hibernian, Aberdeen and Hamilton swabbed. Traces of the Class A drug were found in all six. There was even evidence of cocaine being used in the family section toilets in Celtic’s Lisbon Lions Stand.
The cocaine blight reflects the increasing prevalence and use of cocaine in society as a whole
Ten years ago, cocaine use was more limited to some of the major hooligan groups, including Manchester United’s, who considered it a novelty. Users tended to be older fans. But its accessibility and price, cheaper than the £5 charged for a pint in some cities, means that fans of every description now take it.
‘You’re going to struggle to find these packets outside or inside a football ground,’ said one experienced football police officer, who has worked at Premier League games. ‘But you’re really going to struggle if you just have stewards patting people down.
‘These little packets are hard to detect. Fans will secrete them in their hoods. Bear in mind that they are even secreting flares in a Jaffa Cake packet — you can see the challenge of finding a gram of cocaine, the size of two paracetamol packets. When there’s no police to enforce things, what chance is there of finding it?’
Roberts said greater use of drug detection dogs would be a positive step, as would a ‘sensible level of policing.’
Sportsmail revealed last week that half of games in the top four leagues are police-free since the Supreme Court ruled in a case brought by Ipswich Town last year that forces, rather than clubs, must foot the bill for officers situated beyond a narrowly-defined ground ‘footprint’.
Police estimate they are meeting £43million of the £48.5m to police football, at a time when the number of officers nationwide has been cut by 20,000.
Many clubs prefer to use security firms and stewards instead of police as they are cheaper
Senior officers estimate that if policing the game became cost-neutral, they could afford to employ an additional 864 officers across the country.
In Scotland, Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf has said he will consider imposing strict liability on clubs unless they control fans better. Clubs would then be held responsible for fans’ actions. Sanctions could include fines and closing the stadium. Some lawyers say clubs in England could face the same strictures.
On Merseyside, officers are looking to win what battles they can. There was an element of surprise to the coach searches, which came at 2pm on a Tuesday and involved officers working with Everton and the Driving Standards Agency.
‘Our primary aim is to protect people of all ages who want to go to football matches to support their team, free from the fear of violence and disorder,’ said the force’s Inspector Mark Keenan.
Roberts said that the episodes which escaped national attention were often the most significant. ‘There’s a justifiable outcry when players are racially abused or attacked on the pitch,’ he added.
‘There’s a brief spike of interest and people saying something must be done. I would like to see the same outrage when a fan is attacked and left on a street.’
NUMBERS THAT SHAME FOOTBALL
38% Increase in violence and disorder between 2016-17 and 2017-18.
591 Arrests at Championship matches last season, a 22 per cent increase.
14% Increase in breaches of segregation last year, from 105 in 2016-17 to 120 in 2017-18.
409 Incidents of pyrotechnic devices being thrown last year in English football. An increase from 339 the previous season.
67% Police reports say incidents of racism at football grew a massive 67 per cent last season.
Fans are seen fighting before an FA Cup match between Millwall and Everton in January