THE BLOG
08/12/2011 06:58 GMT | Updated 06/02/2012 05:12 GMT

Hillsborough, Bradford and the 'Coach Bubble': An Open Letter to Supt Rick Burrows

I'm not a regular reader of the Southern Daily Echo, but a piece I came across through a Twitter link this week caught my eye.

I'm not a regular reader of the Southern Daily Echo, but a piece I came across through a Twitter link this week caught my eye.

Ahead of the South Coast derby match between Portsmouth and Southampton later this month the paper carried a for-and-against piece on plans by police to employ the controversial 'coach bubble' tactic to separate fans travelling to the game.

Arguing in favour of its use, police Supt Rick Burrows raised the spectre of a number of disasters including Hillsborough, about which I have written at length, and the 1985 Bradford fire.

Concern over the article was raised on Twitter through the Football Supporters' Federation account, and a number of commenters on the newspaper's website have questioned the use of these tragedies to support the use of a tactic which is primarily about public order rather than crowd safety.

I hope the following open letter articulates the concerns of many who have followed football safety issues down the years;

Dear Supt Burrows,

I read with interest and concern your piece for the Southern Daily Echo (Monday, 5 December).

Your explanation of planned police tactics surrounding the South Coast derby hinges in large part on raising the spectre of the Hillsborough, Bradford, Ibrox and Heysel stadium tragedies.

In your piece you stress your primary concern is the safety of fans, before adding:

"We all too quickly forget the events of Hillsborough, Bradford and Stairway 13 (at Ibrox) and too readily deny the link between football violence and tragedy, as seen at Heysel."

Firstly, the conflation of these four very distinct disasters is both wrongheaded and dangerous.

The casual inference that unruly fan behaviour was the sole cause of Heysel speaks of a lack of familiarity with the particular circumstances. Indeed, both the police captain on that day and the secretary of the Belgian Football Union were convicted of criminal negligence, alongside 14 supporters found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

In the case of Hillsborough I would ask what exactly you mean by 'all too quickly' forgetting the events of that day, and how you feel the 'coach bubble' tactic of keeping fans apart is in any way germane to the disaster.

Even had violence played any part in Hillsborough - and I hope we agree that it did not - there was no question of any problem with keeping fans apart. No Nottingham Forest fans were in or around the Leppings Lane end of the ground that day.

Indeed, a precursor to the 'bubble' technique was employed then, as so often during the 1980s despite warnings over its effectiveness.

As a public order tactic, keeping groups of fans apart no doubt has its uses. But it is exactly that - a tactic designed to keep order, not to ensure crowd safety inside football grounds.

Throughout your justification of its use you insist it is employed as a safety tactic. I would be interested to know on what basis and evidence you consider it might help prevent a repeat of Hillsborough, and thus justify invoking this particular tragedy in support of your argument.

While on the subject of evidence and research, I recommend Professor Phil Scraton's excellent The Truth, a comprehensive appraisal of the many factors which led to the deaths of 96 people at an FA Cup Semi-Final.

Professor Scraton recreates the atmosphere of mutual suspicion between the authorities and supporters in the decade or so preceding Hillsborough.

An emphasis on segregation - whether through keeping fans apart throughout the ground or fenced in once inside - led to an 'us and them' attitude which spread from the very top of government down to police officers on the ground.

It remains a tantalising question whether, had a different mode of policing been adopted from the ground up, officers who saw a tragedy unfold in front of them might have recognised its true nature rather than viewing desperate attempts to escape as a would-be pitch invasion.

Had they done so, perhaps they would have opened gates at the front of the stand sooner rather than forcing fans quite literally on the verge of death back in to a crush they could not escape by any other means.

Had they been encouraged to see supporters first and foremost as people to be protected rather than a problem to be contained, how many lives might have been saved?

Space will not allow me to explore the countless failings which led up to the Hillsborough disaster, or the litany of official indifference, incompetence and evasion which the victims' families have faced with dignity for 22 years.

While as a Liverpool fan I feel bound to speak up over your invocation of Hillsborough, to mention Bradford and Ibrox in the same sentence also strikes me as insensitive and misguided.

In the case of Ibrox, how might a crush among spectators of the same team, travelling in the same direction on Stairway 13 been prevented by the 'bubble' technique? How is it relevant?

Unlike Hillsborough and Ibrox, Bradford was a fire. A fire which started in years of accumulated litter allowed to gather beneath antiquated seating.

The blaze claimed 56 lives having spread within four minutes. How are those deaths relevant to the segregation of supporters travelling to and from the game? How might 86-year-old Sam Firth, found dead in his seat, have been saved by police tactics outside the ground?

The fact is he would not. He would, though, have been spared such a tragic fate had warnings about the main stand's suitability and age been heeded and acted upon.

The common theme in each tragedy you name is not crowd violence or public disorder, but official complacency.

From reading the rest of your article it is clear you are concerned for fan safety, but to suggest that the bubble technique has 'fan safety at its heart' is at best over-stating its effects and intentions.

It may protect property, it may prevent scuffles outside the ground, but to claim it would prevent another Hillsborough or Bradford is disingenuous.

It also risks undermining the confidence of the wider footballing public that the real lessons of the 1980s - that quick fixes and segregation do not guarantee large-scale crowd safety - have been learned.

Yours sincerely,

Steve Graves