Alison Gurden is a lawyer who works with the FSF and has defended many football fans, including those caught with pyro. She has concerns with current legislation but says "whether or not I agree with the law as it stands...possession of pyro remains an offence".
In an attempt to reduce the number of young fans she sees being given criminal records and banning orders Alison is working with Northamptonshire Police to set up a trial of pyro amnesty bins. The trial educates fans to the consequences of using pyro and gives those who have matchday doubts an opportunity to hand in pyro without fear of being criminalised.
The FSF accepts that most fans using pyro are well-intentioned, wanting to liven things up in the stands and improve the atmosphere. We don’t want a “sit down and shut up” culture to prevail but anyone thinking pyro is the answer should read this piece from Alison. She's on the fans' side but works on the frontline. She's seen the effect getting caught has. Take a few minutes to hear her out...
There is no doubt about it, the use of pyro to some fans is exciting. Photos of smoke bombs and flares being used at European matches give the impression of a colourful and high adrenaline crowd of fans.
Whether or not the use of smoke grenades (or plumber’s smoke tabs), flares and fireworks gives the game a better atmosphere, they are banned from English football, and without a doubt the courts do not see that same colourful, high adrenaline atmosphere.
The starting point for a court considering the sentence for someone who has attempted to enter a stadium with pyro is three months in prison. In many cases it is very difficult to persuade the courts to come down from this three month figure.
Add onto this the fact that it is highly likely that a court will impose a football banning order for at least three years (as this is the minimum that a court can impose) and may go as high as 10 years, and a fan’s days of watching football anywhere but in their living room for at least the next three years are over.
The prison record doesn’t look good to any employer, and any chance of coaching or refereeing even a local kids league is given the red card. The offence of possession of the smoke grenade and the prison sentence and the football banning order will all appear on a Criminal Records Bureau (now Banning and Disbarring Service) check.
Look again at the wording in italics above, a fan doesn’t have to let off a flare in the stadium to fall foul of the law, mere possession on entry is sufficient. The law doesn’t distinguish between smoke grenades, flares and fireworks, they are all treated with the same severity. Nor does it distinguish between possession and letting off the pyro.
The situation for under 18s is even worse. Possession of a smoke grenade or flare in any public place is a criminal offence. Hence a fan who is under the age of 18 and who has a smoke bomb in their pocket as they walk through town or on the train on the way to a match is committing an offence.
This places some youths in a very difficult position. Imagine the scenario, on the coach on the way to the match, the youth succumbs to peer pressure from a fellow fan to take a smoke grenade “come on, it will be fun, look you take the blue and I will take the red, it's only three quid”.
The youth then exits the coach and decides that the smoke grenade is not a good idea and approaches a steward or police officer to ask how to dispose of the smoke bomb. At that stage they are admitting to committing an offence, they are in a public place and have a smoke grenade in their possession!
A 15-year-old with no previous convictions, who has never been in trouble with the police before, suddenly finds themselves arrested, in a police cell and facing a criminal record. Even a fixed penalty notice or reprimand given in the police station will appear on their CRB check. With competition for university and jobs so competitive for youths, a CRB will probably means that this youth goes to the back of the queue.
Oh, and they will no doubt be banned from attending football matches, even if they do not end up with a football banning order issued by the courts as the matter was dealt with in the police station, the police share their arrest information with the football club so the club will issue their own ban.
As a lawyer representing football fans, I have concerns about all fans being arrested for pyro possession and use but in particular the criminalisation of youths. Whether or not I agree with the law as it stands, until Parliament changes it, possession of pyro remains an offence.
For this reason I have worked with Northamptonshire Police to set up a trial of pyro amnesty bins outside the Sixfields Stadium at certain matches over April and May 2014. Northampton Town and Coventry City Football Clubs have given their full support for these bins, and it is hoped that this will not only prevent pyro being taken into or used in Sixfields, by home and away fans, but also will promote the fact that pyro is illegal at football matches.
The amnesty bins will be placed outside the turnstiles and will be highly visible, and will not be monitored by police or CCTV, nor will any pyro inside be checked for fingerprints or DNA. But anyone who is caught in possession of pyro inside the stadium will be arrested. With the pyro bins outside there will be no excuse for anyone to have pyro inside the stadium. Let's hope that these bins are a success and that it will help prevent this needless criminalisation and banning of fans.
Particularly if you are a parent or carer for a youth who attends football matches, please pass the message to them that pyro is illegal and the inside of a cell in a youth offending institution could be exactly where they are heading if caught with pyro…and that it not scaremongering or exaggeration. It's reality.
The amnesty bins will be in place at the Sixfields Stadium at the following matches:
- 18th April 2014 – Coventry City v Swindon Town
- 21st April 2014 – Northampton Town v Portsmouth
- 26th April 2014 – Coventry City v Wolves
- 3rd May2014 – NorthamptonTown v OxfordUnited
The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed are those of the author and they don't necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn't be attributed to the FSF.
Thanks to Muhammad غفّاري for the image used in this article under CC license.