Bubble trouble at South Coast derby

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Fans of Portsmouth and Southampton are unhappy with Hampshire Police thanks to their decision to force a so-called “bubble match” onto supporters this Sunday. Bubble matches place severe restrictions on fans’ freedom of movement and supporters of both sides say the move is unnecessary.

The police claim that the move is justified following disturbances at the last Saints-Pompey derby in 2010. But some fans say the policing operation at this fixture was a contributory factor to the trouble.

Bubble matches are games where ALL away fans must travel on designated transport – usually club coaches - from specific pick-up points. No independent travel is allowed and fans are usually given match tickets en route to the game, which guarantees compliance. It is a tactic that police forces around the UK have used – fans from Bristol City, Burnley, Cardiff City, and Wolves have all been on the receiving end in recent years.

Although the first South Coast derby takes place at Fratton Park, home supporters have been particularly vocal in their opposition as they will receive the same treatment in the reverse fixture. Portsmouth Supporters’ Trust (PST) said they were greatly disappointed by the decision due to the lack of consultation with fans, presumption of misconduct, and general inconvenience. PST also said they had safety concerns.

PST board member Ken Malley said: “Police say this is for fans’ own safety but the last time we were at St Mary’s buses were attacked and the police say that there are no guarantees that this will not happen again. How will this reassure families who plan on going to the game? It can be quite intimidating being an obvious “target” on a bus and this only serves to alienate the vast majority of ordinary law-abiding fans.”

He continues: “Many Pompey fans live in Southampton and vice-versa. Imagine the inconvenience to them too? On Sunday some Saints fans might have to travel from Portsmouth to Southampton back to Portsmouth for kick-off, and then back again to Southampton post-game in the police escort before finally returning home. It’s dizzyingly daft. Let’s not forget the inconvenience to disabled fans and their carers too.”

Indeed, the FSF has spoken to one such Saints fan who lives in Portsmouth, only 400m from Fratton Park. Aside from the sheer inconvenience of such a pointless journey he also says that the bubble conditions mean he’ll have to fork out another £20 in petrol for the return trip, £8 parking at St Mary’s, and £12 for the coach journey itself – on top of a £35 match ticket.

To add insult to injury he will also have to head to Southampton from his home in Portsmouth, as he says the club has refused to post coach tickets. Instead they must be picked up in person.

Ludicrous

But it’s not just on the South Coast where bubble matches have caused controversy. Cardiff City fans are often subjected to bubble matches and protested against the police decision at their season opener away to West Ham - enforced travel plans that even the Daily Telegraph described as “ludicrous”.

Vince Alm is spokesperson for Cardiff City Supporters’ Club and a member of the Football Supporters’ Federation’s national council. Speaking to the Telegraph he made clear his opposition to bubble matches.

“I’ve been a fan for many years and appreciate that we have had our fair share of trouble but that is in the past. Last season we were even voted the Family Club of the Year. The restrictions for this game are ludicrous. They expect us to meet at Cardiff City’s ground at 4am or 5am in the morning, drive to South Mimms, have our coaches searched, pick up our tickets and then get an escort to the ground,” said Alm.

“Nobody will be allowed to travel in a private car and even those people who live in London, however close to the ground, will have to travel out to South Mimms to get their tickets. We’ve actually got one member of our 1927 London supporters group who lives 10 doors away from Upton Park. He will have to leave his house at 10am, go to the service station to get his ticket and then board a bus to go back.”

Alm argues that other policing options are available such as handing out tickets at a specific location in London. When following the national team England’s away fans have to sign in at designated locations in order to get their “caps” or loyalty points. Alm also points out that bubble matches are particularly difficult for families with small children – exactly the type of people clubs say they wish to attract.

“Why can’t they make it a ticket exchange game, whereby people can make their own way to London, pick up their tickets from the police and then make their way to the game? It would not only mean leaving Cardiff at a reasonable time, but would enable our family members to go too. There are plenty of supporters who want to take their children to the game. They cannot be expected to get up at half past three in the morning.”

Reasons to oppose bubbles

Supporters have contacted the FSF and made such arguments in the past. Normal fans decide not to attend, numbers drop off, and any troublemakers in attendance subsequently have a higher profile and no longer have to put up with other supporters’ complaints and “normalising” behaviour. Amanda Jacks, who deals with policing and stewarding at the FSF, cites a number of reasons to oppose bubble matches.

“Bubble matches automatically label every fan a hooligan. It’s not in anyway ‘policing by consent’ which is what the police claim is their preferred method. Fans are penned in like sheep and then met by a ‘welcoming’ party of police and stewards who are effectively primed to view fans as trouble. The mindset goes, ‘If they’re not trouble, why are they in a bubble?’ It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Jacks.

“It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to get police to backtrack once they’ve set their sights on a bubble match but we would ask they consider doing a few things. Firstly, exempt disabled or exiled fans from this, upon proof of address. Expecting these fans to make unnecessary trips just isn’t right.

“Police should also do their utmost to make sure away fans aren’t held in empty stadiums any longer than is absolutely necessary and, if they are kept behind, supporters must be constantly communicated with and given access to toilet facilities.

“Police should proactively engage with supporters and consider other options such as ‘soft’ bubble matches. These are common in the north east, supporters can voluntarily use buses put on for free by the away side. The majority of fans take up that option, although other transport options are still open to away fans.

“We'd also like to thank Supt Burrows for his efforts to communicate with supporters once he was made aware of the strength of feeling at our event Watching Football Is Not A Crime! While, ideally, supporters should have been invited to take part in pre-match discussions, we look forward to a post-match meeting to discuss the operation.

“I do have one more question to chairman, chief execs, and directors across the country who think it’s right that their club’s away support has to put up with bubble matches. If your club backs bubble matches, will the board be joining normal fans in the police escort? If not, why not? We have no doubt you intend to cause no problems at the game. Well neither do the overwhelming majority of your fans. One rule for one…”

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