Police tread a fine Posh match day line

Derby fans make their way through Peterborough city centre on Saturday. Photo: John Baker/Peterborough ET
Derby fans make their way through Peterborough city centre on Saturday. Photo: John Baker/Peterborough ET
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John Baker spent a day with Peterborough police for the Posh match against Derby County on Saturday.

MATCH DAY policing is a delicate operation between trying to predict what supporters will do, and pre-empting it. Or sometimes it is a swift and effective reaction to an unexpected flare-up. Either way, when several hundred people from another city arrive in town and alcohol is flowing, officers must be on their toes:

Officers at a briefing conducted by Insp. Paul Ormerod seven hours before kick-off. Photo: John Baker/Peterborough ET

Officers at a briefing conducted by Insp. Paul Ormerod seven hours before kick-off. Photo: John Baker/Peterborough ET

IT’S a murky November day in Peterborough – and Derby County are in town.

The Championship football match between two sides separated by just over 70 miles has been given two grades; the match is classified as ‘B’ (medium risk), while the city centre has been designated as a ‘high risk’.

That doesn’t mean residents should barricade their doors, as the Leeds game from last month was given a Cir – C increased risk – and fans were as good as gold.

There have been no major incidents at London Road since a clash with now non-league Darlington in 2008 when some fans attacked stewards, leading to eight arrests and five convictions, with two receiving three-year bans from all grounds in the country.

So Peterborough is not cursed with the same core of problems which infect clubs like Cardiff and Millwall.

But when officers cram into a briefing room at Thorpe Wood Police Station at 8am on Saturday morning, seven hours before kick-off, they learn of several rogue elements assembling from two counties for the game.

Inspector Paul Ormerod, in charge of the city operation, says:  “There is not a great history between the teams, who have not played since 2010. But we have heard that there may be 60 or 70 fans coming to the city for some kind of birthday reunion bash for a well-known hooligan who was very high-profile in the 90s. They are planning to take over a city pub and will be aware that we will try and get ahead of them, so they may come on the train as early as 9.16am.

“Ten young Northampton risk fans may also be heading to bars on Oundle Road. There is a history between Northampton and Peterborough and there have been issues on that road before.”

The ideal scenario would be to get the ‘risk’ fans out of the stadium and on to the 5.52pm train to Derby. The alternative is for a clutch of hard cores to hit the bars and spend a rowdy night in the city, antagonising Posh fans and keeping officers out until the early hours.

Using fair, firm and friendly tactics, Peterborough police have been praised on rival clubs’ supporters’ sites for their approach.

Events planning officer Sgt Stuart Saunders starts planning with his team (a sergeant and six PCs) a month or so before each game. Policing a football match is a complex operation and resources will be moved around the city.

But there is only so much that can be done, as officers are sometimes hostages to fortune. On match day there are numerous fireworks displays and a gathering in Huntingdon by a group against animal cruelty, which could see resources diverted elsewhere.

The police are not particularly expecting trouble, but Sgt Saunders said: “The vast majority of people involved in football violence in Peterborough do not have criminal convictions outside football.

“They are not hardened convicts fighting in the streets and smashing things up. Some will have decent jobs.”

After a bite to eat, several police vans head to the station in time for the first arrivals. The banter is calm, talk of iphones and other matches high on the agenda. These PSUs (Police Support Units) are experienced heads, used to dealing with unruly fans.

Also on duty are a number of ‘spotters’. They know the Posh fans, know who are the risky ones and who are their hangers-on. There are also the equivalents for Derby fans.

At the station the first train sees 30 or 40 risk fans spilling out onto platform five in parka jackets and tracksuits. Some are clutching cans of booze.

Over the next hour more will arrive, double the predicted number of 70.

They are shepherded up the ramps out of the side of the station, and towards the Drapers Arms in Cowgate, a designated ‘Derby’ pub for the day.

Officers wait outside.

One of the arrivals is a ‘leader’ of a Derby gang, while the main contender for his crown – a cage fighter – has also made an appearance.

All the while monitored from a control room at Thorpe Wood, the group moves on to Broadway, and are having mixed success. O’Neill’s and Yates’s are accepting away fans, but the College Arms is not.

The move was made because during the Leeds match 70 away fans piled in, to the disgruntlement of Posh supporters. The landlady will lose money, but will probably have less trouble.

As well as officers in hi-viz jackets, there are also ‘evidence gatherers’, with bright orange caps.

Armed with cameras and camcorders, their role is also to compile data for any future investigations. Their obvious appearance means no troublemaker can claim that the officers were carrying out a covert operation.

The fans are compliant, laughing and joking, although one trio seems intent on getting into the Arms no matter what. Turned away three times, they eventually give up.

It’s not a surprise to Sgt Saunders, who says: “They’re always friendly before the match, because they want to see it. The Leeds fans were very well-behaved. Football fans are human beings, out to enjoy themselves. It’s just when they overstep the mark when the issues arise.”

The only arrest is not football related. Bar staff at O’Neill’s have received counterfeit £10 notes and a lad in his 20s is arrested.

So far so good, and at 2.15pm the police, in a move pre-planned and with the agreement of the ‘leader’, usher fans out of the bars towards the ground. It’s an impressive sight, a poor man’s carnival striding along Long Causeway surrounded by police.

Rather than the beat of the Rio drum it’s the dialect of the football fan. Shoppers in Cathedral Square are left in no doubt of how great Derby is, or Rams fans’ feelings towards Steve Cotterill, the newly appointed boss of arch rivals Nottingham Forest.

The convoy arrives at the ground, with several roads closed to traffic to allow a swift journey.

Policing a match can run into several thousands of pounds. The club only pays for personnel within its ‘footprint’ – the ground, Glebe Road, part of London Road and Cripple Sidings. Sometimes, like on Saturday, the force may choose to put extra resources in place in the ground.

Four Road Policing Unit motorcyclists pull in, having escorted four away supporters’ coaches into the city. Again, there have been no problems.

Four special teams are among the officers present, alongside more than 100 stewards.

In the control tower CCTV screens survey the stands and the land surrounding the stadium. Present are police, safety liaison group representatives from Peterborough City Council, and medical staff. Computers show how many people are in each stand.

The match kicks off in gloomy surroundings, not helped by an early strike from Derby live wire Theo Robinson.

There is movement and several officers stationed in the corner of the ground suddenly bolt outside. A Derby spotter outside the ground has seen several groups of fans suddenly leave.

Confronted by police, they say they ‘just want a drink’, unaware that this is unlikely.

In a pre-arranged decision pubs in Peterborough have closed from 4.30pm to 5.30pm, some earlier. So if they want to drink they have to go home, and they acquiesce.

On his return from one of the teams escorting them to the station, Inspector Jamie Rice says: “They have come all the way from Derby, their team is winning, and they leave before half-time to go for a drink?

“There was a bit of verbals but nothing too much. They said ‘it’s a free country’, and you just use a bit of persuasion.

“We very rarely see anything in the ground, just a few flashpoints outside sometimes. And today the away stand is nowhere near full.”

Grant McCann’s injury time winner triggers a mass exodus, and the Derby risk fans are intercepted on their way out.

Once they are rounded up they return to the station along Bourges Boulevard accompanied by police in car, van and on foot, the fans trying to save face by chanting they are Derby, and can do what they want.

The British Transport Police join the effort and the fans are all gone by 6pm – home time for the officers.

Considering the potential for trouble it has been a relatively stress-free day.

The Northampton fans never materialised, and if birthday man did make an appearance, it was a very inconspicuous one.

Sgt Saunders says: “It’s been a perfect day.

“The whole aim is to outwit them before they outwit us, and ensure everyone has a safe day, so that proper fans can enjoy it and those who want to cause disorder are policed out of it.”