Things can get exciting outside a game, like here with Chelsea at Tottenham, but rarely dangerous.

The whole thing about safety at English soccer games is one I get a lot. I even I get comments about “running with the hooligans.” And the answers are yes to the first, no to the second.

Things can get exciting outside a game, like here with Chelsea at Tottenham, but rarely dangerous.

While there are certainly some rowdy boys here and there, you’ll hardly ever see them, and I have only felt remotely unsafe one time in nearly 70 games in England.

The whole soccer hooligans thing is left over from the 70s and 80s, when social factors contributed to huge crowds of youth with not much to do except have a go at each other down at the football ground. Sometimes they didn’t even wait for the game, just meeting up via appointment to have a brawl.

At the games they would toss coins and darts into the opposing section, invade the pitch, or fight for territory on the terraces. English fans were bad enough that their clubs were banned from European competition for five years in the 1980s.

How it All Changed

The final straw was the Hillsborough Disaster, when police screw-ups led to a crush that killed 96 Liverpool fans. The government stepped in, and the result was the Taylor Report; its primary suggestions for our purposes were banning alcohol from the seating area and doing away with the terraces. Every stadium had to be all-seater, but terraces are slowly making a comeback in the lower leagues.

I am going to show this picture to everybody who asks me about soccer hooligans.

When massive TV money arrived with the Premier League in the 1990s, so too did innovations like closed circuit video and fan ID cards. Rising ticket prices also squeezed out many working class folks, resulting in an overall more posh, expensive, some would say sterile environment.

It is also much safer. Today, all you have to is scan the crowd during a TV broadcast, and you’ll see women, older folks, families, tourists, everybody. There are still rowdy boys, especially among the away fans, but with ejection, and even banning, looming over their heads, people tend to keep it within the lines.

So how do you make absolutely sure you stay safe at an English soccer game? Here are some tips.

  • Don’t wear the wrong colors. Study up on the opponents and local rivals and avoid their colors. In fact, few English fans wear colors of any sort.
  • Don’t cheer against your neighbors. This might actually get you tossed from the stadium.
  • If you’re supporting the visitors, remove your colors before leaving the ground. Remember, it only takes one drunken nut job to start trouble.

Me at Chelsea Bridge, sporting a scarf given to me by Sunderland friends. Sunderland won, and they told me not to wear it out!

  • Beware the boundary areas on either side of the away fans. Things can get tense in there, although rarely more than just tense.
  • Understand that sitting with the away fans probably means sitting in the rowdiest area. Of course, this can be fun, as can those boundaries.
  • Also understand that wherever the away fans are outside the stadium, there may be tension. There will probably also be cops on horses. Again, this could be entertaining; just be smart about it.
  • Understand that at a Derby, or rivalry match, the stakes go way up. Some of these folks get truly irrational at the site of their “enemies.”
  • Also understand that some international games are also a different beast. Something about young men, booze, and being in a different country can bring out the vulgar, if not the worst. If we’re talking about England v Albania at Wembley, I wouldn’t worry about it. But England v Scotland is (in fact was) something else.

The only time I ever felt even a little unsafe at a game was early in my career when I didn’t realize how important some of this stuff is. I went, as a Fulham fan, to a game at Sheffield United. The game was a tense 1-1 draw, with two big calls going against United, and after the game I walked back to the station, still sporting my black and white Fulham scarf — through a sea of disgruntled Sheffield United fans.

Also at Sheffield United, we Fulham fans had a screen over our heads — wouldn’t want somebody to “spill” anything.

Since Fulham is sort of a posh, non-threatening club to most people, I figured this was no problem. But it could have been. First a United fan approached me with a stern look and asked if Fulham had had that referee before. I said “I don’t know, I’m just a visiting American,” and he softened up a little.

But then another guy came over said. “You were lucky, and you’re going down,” meaning getting relegated. I said, “You’re right,”and then decided that maybe I could continue my walk colors-free. It was the last time I ever wore anything other than black or home colors outside a stadium.

Another time I was going to see Everton play at home against Crystal Palace. Due to some ticket hassles, I was a bit late getting in, and when I walked out of the tunnel to head for my seat, I thought I felt eyes on me, and maybe a slight drop in volume. I was wearing my bright red raincoat, the only one I had. And red is for Liverpool FC. Never mind Everton weren’t playing Liverpool. Don’t wear red to Goodison Park! Or to St. James Park in Newcastle (because of Sunderland). Or light blue to Old Trafford (for Man City). You get the idea; do your homework.

One other time, I didn’t feel unsafe at all, but I was in the middle of a pretty intense scene. I saw Chelsea play at Tottenham, at the old (real) White Hart Lane — and right here most English people would know exactly what this means. Two big London clubs, long history of battles, both highly ranked … and here was the scene as we made our way past the Chelsea fans’ entrance:

This actually looks more intense than it was, mainly because of the horses. But I have to say, I loved it. I also loved sitting in the end near the Chelsea fans. But I recognize that it wasn’t for everybody, starting with kids, as the fans in that end never sat down all night. And when Spurs scored right in front of us, I was actually kind of scared by the celebrations I was in the middle of.

So yes, I would say that going to soccer games in England is perfectly safe, with just a few common-sense precautions. There is always a very slight chance you will be in the wrong spot when things “kick off,” but I wouldn’t worry about it. And if you really want some lively banter and rowdiness, you can find that, as well.

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