Met mounted branch officers – AKA ‘The Pony Club’ – making friends with West Ham fans near Upton Park
I was a fat, bookish child for who sport held no interest. Ironically, I lived near a football ground for the first thirteen years of my life. The club played a big part in the local community. Most of my friends were soccer-mad.
I, doomed by fate to be a contrarian, was not soccer-mad. If asked “who do you support?” I would probably have replied, “The Polish people in their struggle against Soviet oppression.”
My childhood lead to me equating football with trouble. Every other Saturday, Special Patrol Group transit vans lined the streets around my house. I remember watching officers order skinheads to remove the laces from their Doc Marten’s (so if they tried to kick someone, the boot would fly off). Saturdays were noisy and chaotic, Hogarthian in their ugliness. Weekday matches in the winter, when it was darker, often ended in violence. Once, my mother made us hide behind the sofa after a brick crashed through our window.
Later, I met contemporaries who lurked on the fringes of hooliganism. The gangs had names like Bushwhackers and Head-hunters, glamorised by TV dramas like ‘The Firm’ (1988). They wore expensive clothes and travelled the country to fight other hooligans. I thought it all rather silly.
A retired hooligan once told me two things killed the glory days of football violence – CCTV and Ecstasy. “The cameras meant it was too easy to get nicked,” he lamented. “Then came the Summer of Love - ‘E’ was cheaper than coke, and ‘E’ ain’t a fighting drug.”
It was true – in the late 80s, this young wolf dressed in sharp Italian casual gear and spent the rest of his income on marching powder. By 1991? He wore flared jeans, a floppy hat and spent Saturdays bouncing up and down in a field in Wiltshire. His season ticket was never renewed.
I would later attend university far from London. As an undergraduate surrounded by young men with names like Ed and Will, I feigned a passing interest in rugby. If you’re not sporty, rugby is highly tolerable. The game’s complex laws are mitigated by gentlemanly violence. Spectators are allowed to drink but seldom fight. Clubs positively welcome ‘social members’ who have no intention of getting muddy. Some of my happiest sporting memories are of banter and booze with Welsh fans during a Six Nations match at Twickenham, back when it was possible to smuggle a hip flask inside the stadium. England were thrashing Wales, yet fans from both sides were laughing, making friends and sharing drinks. It was, to me, the quintessence of the sporting ideal – competition bringing people together.
I seldom saw that at football matches, but by then I was a policeman – I wouldn’t set foot in a football ground unless I was being paid. Besides, football’s true spirit, it’s primal spirit, isn’t one of unity. Not if we’re being honest. Ur-football is meant to be confrontational. Yet this tribal sport generates too much money for it to tolerate its Stone-Island clad warriors, determined to spill blood for the Futbol Gods.
And yet… if rugby is a Labrador, soccer retains its wolfish heart. Like everything else English, it’s a Class thing.
Growing up near a football ground in the late 70s and early 80s, this was a familiar sight
Although I didn’t spend long in uniform, I was ‘shield-trained’ as a public order officer. This meant I was often sent on what the police call ‘aid’, i.e. support to other areas for events like demonstrations, ceremonial events and football matches. It’s how I ended up standing outside Downing Street for Pride 1995 in riot gear, in case anti-Clause 28 protestors tried to storm the place. Instead, a group of men in Lederhosen passed by, dancing on top of a bright pink tank*. They waved, blew kisses and bombarded us with toilet rolls. We laughed. It was one of those moments where you realise - as a copper - you’re on the wrong side of history.
As for the football? It was an unavoidable part of a uniform officer’s work. Coppers from my division were usually sent to police matches at Chelsea, Brentford, Queen’s Park Rangers and Wembley. I was once sent to Highbury for an Arsenal game, a deeply disturbing experience for a North London-phobic such as I. It’s easy to forget what a lairy force of nature Ian Wright was back in the day - I saw him barge, cajole and smash his way through an entire match. The most poorly-behaved fans I ever saw? Celtic, by a country mile. Rangers might revel in offensive sectarianism, but for me Celtic hone it to a sharper edge.
North London - the Spurs ticket office, purveyors of disappointment since 1882
However, the majority of my football policing was at Chelsea, back when Glenn Hoddle was manager. Despite the Blues’ reputation, most of the fans were fine - British supporters were in my opinion over-policed and stereotyped in the 90s due to the behaviour of a few morons.
I also remember the infamous ‘Shed’, the south stand at Stamford Bridge where hardcore fans gathered. Usually, officers from Fulham nick (Chelsea’s ground isn’t actually in Chelsea, it’s in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham) policed the ‘Shed’ as they knew the locals. On the one occasion I was posted there, I spent the entire match being spat at by central casting football troglodytes. The ‘Gold’ commander for the match would rather suffer us being gobbed on than start a ruck with fans and disrupt the game. We were occasionally sceptical of the brass - an unseemly number of senior officers from Fulham nick magically found themselves working for the club after retirement.
Having said that, I remember a Spurs versus Chelsea match where a bloke in the north stand (the Matthew Harding stand, where season ticket holders sit) struck up a chant of ‘Spurs are on their way to Belsen’, giving you a flavour of the banter you’d routinely hear at football in those days. For the uninitiated, Spurs have a sizeable Jewish following. We got on the radio and reported the situation - you couldn’t enter the crowd without authorisation. The Fulham guv’nor in charge wasn’t having it. “Go in and get him,” he said. Spurs versus Chelsea? That’s a derby just waiting to kick off.
Extracting someone from a football stand is tricky. Back then, stewards were fairly hands-off. First, we tried telling the bloke to get out of his seat and come to us. Which, of course, he didn’t. I suppose there was an argument to get him at half-time, but the singing was just getting louder. A phalanx of us filed into the stand and grabbed him. I think this was the point other fans experienced a ‘shit just got real moment’ - they might not be scared of the police, but losing their season ticket? They let us by with only a little jostling. Jostling, incidentally, that would get you utterly battered by cops at a French or Italian soccer game. UK fans don’t know how lucky they are.
We grabbed the bloke leading the singing, a burly man in his forties and old enough to know better. He was in tears as we ejected him from the ground. What a big man, eh? The decision was made not to arrest him - simply to take his details and escort him off the premises. Then the club could deal with him. That’s how different things were back then - now he’d absolutely be nicked.
Everybody was kung-fu fighting: Eric Cantona at Croydon magistrates’ court - it wasn’t only fans who misbehaved at matches. The Pc wears classic mid-1990s Met uniform, complete with horrible NATO V-neck, speed-cuffs and the newly-issued acrylic baton. Note complete lack of body armour.
Then there was the match between Chelsea and, I think, Ipswich. I could be wrong, but the away fans were singing about tractors. I was in the East Stand, which back then was so steep you could abseil off it - I got vertigo peering off the top of the bloody thing. Anyhow, the fans were as good as gold (as a football pundit might say, when he wasn’t as sick as a parrot). So I found myself, out of sheer boredom, watching the game. This is a non-no, as the cardinal rule for a police officer at any event is always watch the crowd.
Missing the game was never a problem for me; my attitude to football can be summed up by this sketch. However, I’d attended enough matches to absorb some of the game’s laws by osmosis. I am also a doughty opponent of obvious injustice. So when Chelsea scored a dodgy goal in the second half I couldn’t help but call, “come on, Ref, that was clearly offside.”
Obviously, the away fans heartily agreed with my assessment. Soon, a loud chant of ‘The Bill Says it’s Offside’ could be heard in the east stand. A nearby sergeant’s radio crackled. He came over to me, smiled, and said, “Silver would ask you watch the crowd, not the refereeing.”
For many coppers, football is their first real introduction to public order policing; getting used to crowds and the boredom of waiting around, punctuated by brief bursts of activity. It’s also when you’re most likely to see the TSG, dogs and horses in action and appreciate what they do - especially the horses. Police public order is the nearest thing you’ll see nowadays to medieval warfare; combatants in helmets and armour, carrying shields and armed with cudgels, supported by squadrons of cavalry.
During shield training you’d be introduced to mounted branch tactics, learning how to work with and around horses. Up close, the horses are intimidating and very, very big. We’d practice breaking our shield wall so the cavalry could canter through to clear a hostile crowd. Then they’d start galloping, whereupon you get an idea of what Jon Snow must have felt like in that scene from ‘Game of Thrones’. They say a single police horse, as a force multiplier, is worth a dozen coppers on foot in a riot. I’d say it’s more like twenty.
The first time I saw it for real was after a football match circa 1993 - I think it was Chelsea versus Newcastle. The Newcastle fans refused to disperse from Fulham Broadway, the route used to usher fans from Stamford Park to the tube station. Missiles were thrown. There was fighting. The away fans were most definitely up for it.
Then the order was given and in went the horses. I heard bellowed orders and horseshoes clattering on tarmac, a skirmish line of riot-helmeted riders charging towards the Newcastle supporters.
I’ve never seen a crowd disperse so quickly.
It would take a hundred cops to do the same job, many of who would probably have been injured. Sometimes, when I see the ‘Pony Club’ cantering about on a sunny day and I’m tempted to think they’re a bit of an indulgence, I remember that night.
The Met’s Mounted Branch - a genuine force multiplier
As Premiership football transitioned from being an extremely lucrative sport to a global mega-business, so too did the policing model; clubs were asked to pay more for policing both inside and outside of stadia, leading to primarily steward-led security inside football grounds. Meanwhile, novel legal tactics like football banning orders, not to mention more serious court sanctions for football-related disorder slowly but surely chipped away at organised football violence. Police public order teams of football spotters and dedicated intelligence units monitored ‘threat subjects.’ I knew one Football Intelligence Officer who’d receive postcards from the hooligans he monitored when they travelled abroad for England games. You can say a lot of things about football hooligans, but you can’t accuse them of not having a sense of humour.
The game’s a monster now, enjoying financial, cultural and political clout. I think what the Premiership wanted, the Premiership got. And the Premiership’s bottom line is about one thing and one thing only.
I do wonder if the resulting police withdrawal from grounds - and the focus on pre-emptive intelligence rather than a uniformed presence - led to complacency on all sides. I give you, for example, the utter clusterfuck that was policing the 2021 European Cup Final at Wembley.
My career moved on. I thought my involvement in anything football-related was over. It wasn’t, but that’s another story.
That isn’t to say it was all bad. One sunny spring day in the late 90s I was part of a Special Branch team dispatched at short notice to Wembley for a Coca-Cola cup final. Intelligence suggested a suspect of interest was attending the match - if he made an appearance we were to arrest him immediately.
We turned up to the game on a cancelled rest day - which is to say I was on double time. We were invited to wait in an executive box in-between taking turns monitoring the crowd via Wembley’s excellent CCTV suite. I enjoyed a rare roast beef sandwich as I lounged on a sofa, oblivious to the game outside. I think I watched TV and read a paperback while waiting for something to happen. Which, not unusually, it didn’t. “I used to hate policing football,” said a colleague, helping himself to another Danish pastry.
“Me too,” I replied, asking a passing waiter for an espresso. I was on my eighth hour of double time and my third roast beef sandwich. “But you know what? I could get used to this.”
* The pink ‘tank’ was, in fact, an Abbott self-propelled gun. Usually parked on a Brixton forecourt, its been a fixture of London demos for as long as I can remember. It used to have a giant plastic pig in a police helmet sitting on the turret. However, as an armoured fighting vehicle pedant, I couldn’t let it go - it’s not technically a tank.
I used to live near the Bristol Rovers ground and could clearly hear the roar of the crowd, as well at other times the roar of the speedway bikes and the greyhound racing crowds who shared the stadium. It dawned on me how football had changed when the stadium was sold to Tesco and IKEA and the club moved to share Bristol Rugby’s premises. The game was secondary to the money, and the Gasheads fans, named after the gas holder near the ground, were simply a means of generating cash to pay the overinflated wages of the players and shareholders. It’s a business now not a sport, and much the poorer for it. It was never a problem for me watching the crowd on a special duty as I wasn’t a fan, just looking forward to my mug of Oxo at half time.
Great piece! Gave me flashbacks to Everton v Millwall Jan 2006… my Inspector got roasted for having the Mounted section charge along Spellow Lane… I vividly remember making my way to the Gwladys Street end and as I opened a staff door into the fan’s refreshments area, I saw tables and stools - having been ripped from the concrete - being launched, with pints of piss… Both sets of fans had broken the barrier gate and ‘it had well and truly gone off’! I was like Zorro having to protect myself, escaping outside to join my colleagues pursuing the ‘offenders’ … Like many officers who worked the game, I have a few stories…