Thousands of FC Köln fans descended on London last week for their Europa League tie against Arsenal, catching the club and police off guard as Amanda Jacks explains from her first-hand account...
The new season is barely six weeks old and there seems to be one controversial incident after another. We’ve had “Bragate” at Stevenage FC, the furore following the late winner by Man City and subsequent goal celebrations at AFC Bournemouth, and last week, Arsenals’ opening Europa League Cup fixture against FC Köln.
On Thursday afternoon social media was awash with footage of the German supporters marching through the West End of London. Depending on who you follow on twitter, the spectacle was either one that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up or raised fears of a drink fuelled mob.
Knowing they were heading towards Highbury, I made my way over there to see for myself to make up my own mind - were they football fans having a great day out in the capital or a rampant mob about to riot?
In the underground station the acrid smell of pyrotechnics lingered in the air. On arrival at Highbury and Islington, the station was littered with confetti and German beer cans (bins are in short supply in London stations). On exiting the station I heard the FC Köln fans before I saw them.
The roads outside the station had police vans parked on either side. The entrance to Highbury Fields where the fans were congregating was lined with tense looking Metropolitan Police Officers. I made my way through and was confronted by the sight of several hundred Köln fans singing their hearts out. They were young and old and male and female but all shared the same expression of excited anticipation. They sang in English about how nice it was to be in London.
A lot of alcohol was consumed but it seems the Germans have strong constitutions since I saw hardly anybody I’d describe as drunk. Merry, yes, falling over drunk, no.
Highbury Fields is lined with Georgian town houses, four storeys high. At one point, a very attractive blonde woman leaned out of the top floor window and waved at the crowds below who responded very enthusiastically. Suffice to say, you didn’t need to be conversant in either English or German to understand what was going on. Then her boyfriend appeared alongside her, much to the good-natured displeasure from the crowds below. That was the atmosphere. It was a party.
By now, the small corner of Highbury Fields was getting overcrowded and without any obvious direction, the FC Köln fans started to walk up to a much larger open space. I followed, knowing that at some point the fans would begin to walk en masse to the Emirates.
It was when we were in the far larger field, that I properly began to appreciate the sheer numbers of travelling fans.
At 5.00pm I tweeted a picture and estimated there were about 6,000 Köln fans in the park, at 5.20 I tweeted again saying the crowd had swelled to 10,000.
I also made it very clear that the crowd were exceptionally well behaved and surprisingly calm. As I wandered about (I was on my own), I spoke to a few fans who were understandably looking forward to the game and full of pride for both their club and home City. One young man had tears in his eyes as he told me he’d waited his whole life for this moment.
There were a handful of police officers right at the edge of the fields who were friendly towards the Köln fans - approaching them for pictures and perhaps information. However, I didn’t see any proactive attempts from them to speak to the fans. Had there been, perhaps the Met would have realised the expectation from a fair few Köln fans was that the turnstiles of the Emirates would open for them at 6.00pm. They may have also found out what time they were intending on leaving the Fields, en masse as is the tradition of supporters from many European clubs.
I should say at this point I was fully aware that only a small proportion of the FC Köln fans would have tickets for the away end. I also wondered how on earth the police and AFC stewards would cope with the sheer numbers of people.
However, given the Met's helicopter was flying overhead and the Germans had been in central London all day I just assumed a plan would be in place to manage the crowd about to descend on the Emirates. Naively, perhaps, it also didn’t occur to me just how many would have tickets in the home end.
I also didn’t know what would be the signal for the fans to start moving on. I know that some supporters have leaders among them who’d assume control of the masses, however there didn’t appear to be an obvious one among the Köln fans. I moved over to the edge of the field to await the inevitable departure, pilgrimage even, to the Emirates.
When it did start, it did so with a trickle of fans and that trickle soon became an orderly flood which clearly caught the police who’d been waiting on the residential road aside the Fields by surprise. I didn’t want to be at the front, so I hung back a little and eventually joined in when a few hundred fans had passed me by. At the front, smoke bombs and flares were ignited, swathing me and others in red smoke.
I kept to the edge of the crowd and was jostled by a few Köln fans who wanted to be at the front or in the middle. No big deal and certainly no worse than walking down London’s Oxford Street. The route to the stadium started along residential streets and soon the noise of the fans was bouncing off the houses whose residents either came out with their phones to film or stood at the windows to watch.
Mums were holding up their kids to see, old men stood at the gates with wistful looks in their eyes. Nobody was scared and nobody was obviously threatened. The opposite in fact. The residents revelled in the rare spectacle on their streets.
We then hit the Holloway Road in the middle of rush hour. Cars, buses and lorries ground to a halt as the masses navigated their way through. Car horns were bibbed, van drivers gave the fans the thumbs up, bus passengers were filming with their phones. Shop owners came out to marvel at the sight of thousands of football fans very much making their presence felt. I didn’t see them, but given the stop/start movement the Met must have been at the front managing the crowds through the traffic.
Eventually the Emirates was in sight and then we were right outside it. I hung about for a few minutes more, all was calm and orderly and I made my way from North to East London and home.
I can safely say my couple of hours with the Köln fans was memorable and entirely positive. I didn’t feel threatened or scared at any time. There was no reason for me to be. The walk to the ground is one I won’t forget in a hurry. It was a joy to be among such proud supporters in such a positive, celebratory and unique atmosphere.
Once home, I checked twitter and followed events that went on to dominate the news, talk shows and social media for the rest of the evening and most of Friday.
I was dismayed to see a small number of fans try to barge their way into the stadium. When the stadium eventually opened, I was dismayed again to see another small group force their way past stewards to get to where they wanted to be.
But what dismayed me most of all was the focus on the behaviour of those fans and not pre-match planning, crowd management, policing and stewarding. That’s what we should be talking about.
How the FC Köln fans managed to get their hands on so many tickets in the home ends needs to be examined in detail. However, that question needs to be asked alongside another one: why wasn’t the demand recognised?
To some extent it was. Messages went out asking German supporters not to travel without tickets but surely those messages should have been tempered with the understanding that fans would have sold their granny to be at the Emirates. Fans are ingenious when it comes to being at a match they really want to be at. The enormity of this game should have been recognised and better still understood and planned for. You can’t apply the ordinary to the extra ordinary.
Perhaps a couple of minor points in the grand scheme of things, but it should have been anticipated our German guests would have congregated in Highbury Fields. That’s what a lot of overseas fans do. They gather en masse to walk to whichever stadium they’re playing in. Where were the portable urinals and extra bins? Traffic was blocked in roads adjacent the space. Would temporary road closures alleviated cars and delivery vehicles getting blocked in?
From what I understand, this fixture wasn’t popular with a sizeable minority of home fans. What were they going to do with their tickets? Once it became clear just how many fans would travel – and it was, days ahead of the game – could a sterile area to accommodate those fans not have been created in the Emirates? I appreciate that would have been a logistical nightmare, but surely doable in the interests of safety.
Köln fans I spoke to were under the impression the stadium would open at 6.00pm hence them leaving Highbury Fields when they did. On arrival at the stadium, it was shut. To a greater or lesser extent that is going to raise tensions and bring related issues, particularly if communication was poor and fans were left without a clear picture as to what was happening. Notwithstanding the fact that a lot of Germans speak great English, were there German speaking stewards?
A lot of fingers were pointed in the direction of the Met police for the problems. That isn’t fair. Arsenal FC were the event organisers. Planning is done in conjunction with a number of stakeholders, including the local authority, other emergency services, possibly the Sports Ground Safety Authority and the highways department. There is a collective responsibility, that’s why Safety Advisory Groups exist.
It would seem however, that one major stakeholder was missing from the pre-match planning. The FC Köln fans themselves. One of their supporters who wrote in the Guardian made this very point and how helpful it would have been to have been included in pre match discussions.
Why were there no police liaison officers in Soho or Highbury Fields speaking to the supporters and ascertaining what their plans were? Talking to those fans it could have become apparent just how many had home tickets. Forewarned is forearmed.
But most of all what needs to be questioned is the apparent lack of preparation for the sheer numbers of fans who travelled to London, to Highbury Fields and onto the Emirates. The warning signs were there well in advance. They should have been heeded. That they weren’t raises significant questions, the answers to which should be made public to ensure supporters everywhere retain confidence in the authorities to keep us safe.
Watching Football Is Not A Crime! is part of the FSF's ongoing drive to monitor the police in their dealings with football fans and work with them to ensure that all fans are treated fairly and within the law. You can contact FSF Caseworker Amanda Jacks via: