Peter Livingstone set off to watch a football match on a March morning expecting a good day out with friends. The experience turned ugly.
The 49-year-old and his fellow supporters were detained without good reason, forced on to a train against their will despite having their own transport nearby and, when finally reunited with their minibuses, were escorted up the M1 under the flashing lights of a police escort.
“It was humiliating,” Livingstone said. “It looked like we were terrorists. We had done nothing wrong.”
Livingstone is part of a group of Middlesbrough fans who were so appalled by their treatment at the hands of Derbyshire Police in 2015 that they have taken a civil action against the force. The case, which will reach its conclusion in Middlesbrough County Court this week, highlights a number of concerns about the way football is policed and the difficulty supporters who believe they have been mistreated face when they try to hold the authorities to account.
The Boro fans’ case is being crowdfunded. “Legislation prevents people receiving legal aid in situations like this,” Amanda Jacks, the Football Supporters’ Association case worker, said. “Unless you’ve got deep pockets it’s hard to get accountability.”
Middlesbrough were playing Derby County on St Patrick’s Day five years ago when four minibuses from Teesside arrived at their destination. The group had barely exited their vehicles when the problems began. “It was less than five minutes,” Craig Hutchinson said. “We turned the corner looking for a pub to get food and drink and there was a wall of police.”
It was the beginning of a six-hour ordeal for Hutchinson and his companions. They were corralled in the street for more than 90 minutes and denied access to toilet facilities. “People were desperate,” Hutchinson said. “There was a church nearby and eventually police said we could go against the wall. There were women inside the church and they were appalled. It was embarrassing.”
The 60-strong party – including three children, a man on crutches and a profoundly deaf person – were then given a Section 35 dispersal order. This allows police to demand that any group of two or more people leave the area. It was not a simple case of putting the supporters back on their minibuses, however. They were marched to the railway station and placed on a train to Nottingham.
“They tried to make us buy tickets to a place we did not want to go to,” Hutchinson said. “Eventually they put us on a train.”
At Nottingham station the Boro fans were escorted to a service entrance and held for almost another hour before the minibuses arrived to drive them home. The final indignity was being taken in a convoy along the hard shoulder of the motorway until the police finally left them to their own devices.
“They took us to Rotherham,” Livingstone said. “It was 7.30. We’d been in their custody since just after 2pm.”
The decision to take Derbyshire Police to court was not taken lightly. “We’d lost a lot of money,” Livingstone said. “Some people had taken a day off work. We’d paid for transport and tickets and then were treated like animals.”
Derbyshire Police argued in court that they had intelligence about social media contact between one of the Middlesbrough party and a Derby fan that suggested potential trouble. The Derby supporter was not present in the area on the day of the game because he was working away in another city. Three of the Boro fans had been subject to banning orders in the past but they had expired by 2015.
“It was overkill,” Livingstone said. “We were deemed guilty before anyone had done anything. A lot of us are grandfathers. My brother Paul, who’s deaf, was very distressed by the whole experience.”
If the judgement goes in favour of the supporters, the most an individual can receive is £2,000. “It’s not about the money,” Livingstone said. “It’s about having your human rights infringed. It only happens to football fans.”
Hutchinson concurs. “I’m a huge sports fan. I go to cricket and rugby league. You never see this approach from the police in other sports. Just football.”
“It is hard for supporters in this situation,” Jacks said. “You ask the police why it’s happening and they hide behind Public Interest Immunity so they don’t have to justify their actions.
“It’s expensive to take them to court so the public rarely get to challenge the police.”
Many of the Middlesbrough supporters involved have been attending matches together for many years and over that period have become involved in raising money for charity. One of the group estimated that they had generated upwards of £170,000 for good causes. Their experience in this area helped in the decision to crowdfund the case.
“No one should be treated like this,” Livingstone said. “It’s not the 1980s any more. Football supporters deserve better treatment.”
Barrister Mark Ley-Morgan, appearing for Derbyshire Police, says the group are “not credible complainants” and that the force acted accordingly.
Judge Mark Gargan has now retired to consider his judgement.