For most clubs in the NPower Championship, the football division below the Premier League, the season is now over. Cardiff City will be promoted as champions, along with Hull City, who came second. The next four teams are competing for the third promotion place. Leicester City beat Watford 1-0 in their first leg last night; Crystal Palace are playing Brighton and Hove Albion this evening; after the second legs on Sunday and Monday the winners will meet at Wembley.
Palace and Brighton have a longstanding rivalry. Violence between fans isn’t unknown. It’s standard practice with such ‘high risk’ matches for the police to make special plans. Police numbers go up, and more or less onerous restrictions are placed on fans: only season ticket holders may be eligible for tickets to away matches; trains to and from the match may be alcohol-free; movement outside the ground after the game may be limited.
But the restrictions on Brighton fans going to Palace tonight are something new. Anyone who bought a ticket had their personal details shared with Crystal Palace, the Metropolitan Police and Sussex Police. A ticket may only be used by the person it was issued to; fans must carry identification with them and be ready to produce it when asked, by any steward or police officer, in the stadium, or during some undefined period ‘en route to or from the stadium’. Failure to produce a ticket and ID will result in a ban from all matches for the rest of the season. Anyone found with a ticket that was issued to another person, or anyone found to have given or sold their ticket to someone else, will be banned for a year.
A barrister with experience in defending football fans told me that the restrictions almost certainly wouldn’t stand up in court. They are not being enforced with the threat of a Football Banning Order, because walking around without identification is not actually a crime, even if you are a football fan. Instead, the vague terms of the conditions of sale promise an ‘exclusion’, likely in practice to be enforced not by the courts but by the clubs. The police have long presumed all football fans are guilty; now it seems supporters’ own clubs are acting on the assumption too. Either Brighton or Crystal Palace may play in the Premier League next season, in which case I may try to catch the game when Manchester City come down south. I’ll bring a lawyer.