“A return to the dark days of football,” claimed Sussex Police Chief Inspector Simon Nelson. A suggestion so wild and exaggerated, yet not to mention completely untrue, that links an innocent majority of Palace fans that travelled to the Amex Stadium two weeks ago to football’s hooligan problem of the Seventies and Eighties.
The sad truth is the game between the Eagles and their fierce rivals, Brighton & Hove Albion, was a bleak reminiscence of football fans being criminalised by the authorities with false information. Most Brighton and Palace supporters were at the Amex Stadium to watch the two sides meet for the first time in the Premier League era and were uninterested in criminal behaviour.
It seems little has been learned from last year’s Hillsborough inquiry, which found former South Yorkshire Police Chief, David Duckenfield, guilty of lying to the Football Association about Liverpool fans’ involvement in the horrific 1989 tragedy.
Duckenfield’s gross incompetence was far more extreme. His faults were found to directly link to the untimely deaths of 96 people, crushed due to his order for an exit gate to be opened which more fans used to gain entry to the FA Cup semi-final between the Reds and Nottingham Forest. But the relative comparisons between the smears of innocent football fans remain evident and sets a worrying precedent.
Luckily, it did not take twenty-seven years to realise Sussex Police and Brighton fabricated stories of Palace fans being in possession of knives and knuckledusters purely to tarnish their reputation. But only once challenged by Palace fanzine Five Year Plan (FYP) and Sports editor of the Independent, Ed Malyon, did Sussex Police admit to their false reporting.
In a strange episode of hiding their faults, Sussex Police have since changed their original report and no mention of knives and knuckledusters exist, with not even a note to suggest information has been corrected. Even the time and date of the original statement remains the same. Their attempt to obstruct the truth and deflect the blame should not be tolerated.
The original information provided by Sussex Police failed to add up. Only six arrests were made in connection with the game, although just one was a known Palace fan and no arrests were linked to the possession of offensive weapons.
When questioned by FYP on Thursday, Nelson referred reports of weapons back to Brighton, claiming it was they who had confiscated knives and knuckledusters. Yet this failed to add up, too. Why had Brighton confiscated weapons and not handed them to the police? More importantly, why were they then subsequently not arrested?
Nelson failed to provide evidence of the weapons and Brighton pointed back in the direction of Sussex Police, a finger pointing exercise more familiar with primary school playgrounds rather than two professional institutions.
Had a steward confiscated weapons at the Amex and not handed them to police, Sussex residents would rightly fear that a random citizen was roaming the county with knives and knuckledusters, having confiscated them at the Amex and not been advised to give them to anyone with more authority.
The false allegations would have struck fear into those who were at the Amex. Fans would have feared for the lives of their family and friends due to being in the knowledge that others were supposedly casually carrying weapons, and it would also have struck fear into those attending the forthcoming FA Cup game had nobody pressed for answers. The role of the police is to serve and protect but at the Amex Sussex Police did the complete opposite. They misinformed, spread fear and almost shattered the reputation of a fanbase.
If Brighton did lead the police force to believe they had confiscated weapons when they clearly did not, they were effectively accusing people of wishing to cause serious harm to others – a serious case of defamation. A full investigation is required to realise why the allegations were made and, more importantly, why the police assumed these reports were the gospel truth without seeking evidence and not even asking for such weapons to be passed over.
Luckily, the smear has failed to serve its purpose in tarnishing the reputation of Palace fans, who are not criminals. Some sections of the fanbase might have a reputation for the rare incident of idiocy, such as the dashing of missiles at opposition players celebrating goals in front of the Holmesdale, but that is as far as any negative attention goes and you would struggle to find a football fanbase that does not have a bad minority. Palace hate Brighton, and vice-versa, but not enough to want to murder an innocent human being.
There is no hiding the fact that some Palace fans did genuinely cause trouble at the Amex, but nothing was quite as serious as possessing weapons. Those who stormed the gates without tickets should be condemned, they ensured at least 150 fellow Eagles fans who possessed tickets were not allowed inside the ground.
One would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at Sussex Police Headquarters when the two sides were drawn once against at the Amex in the FA Cup third round. They still believe their policing of the game two weeks ago was good, a fact that is embarrassing but equally just as worrying.
Palace have already been allocated just 2,000 tickets again which will lead to many ticketless fans travelling in January. If the police are not careful, they will face very similar problems to those that they faced previously.