Are football banning orders effective?
A man who sent a racist message to Brentford FC player Ivan Toney was recently handed a 3-year football banning order, as well as a 4-month suspended sentence. Whilst this has been described as a “landmark ruling” by Northumbria Police and is a welcome development in efforts to stamp out discrimination, how effective are football banning orders in practice?
On 14 October 2022, Antonio Neill sent a racist message on Instagram to Ivan Toney. Mr Toney posted a screenshot of the message to his Twitter account the following day, prompting a police investigation. The message was treated as a hate crime and, on 13 March 2023, Mr Neill was sentenced at Newcastle Magistrates Court.
What is a Football Banning Order (“FBO”)?
An FBO is an order imposed by a criminal court, preventing a person from attending any regulated football match in the UK and / or outside England and Wales. The person subject to the FBO may also be required to report to a local police station and / or surrender their passport in advance of international matches.
The FBO imposed on Mr Neill prevents him from attending any regulated football match in the UK, including Premier League, Championship, League One, League Two and National League fixtures, as well as England home internationals. He is also banned from travelling abroad to watch international friendlies, qualification matches and tournaments.
FBOs were first introduced by the Football Spectators Act 1989 (“the 1989 Act”). FBOs were traditionally imposed after an offence relating to the conduct of football fans at the sports ground, and limited to offences said to have occurred inside a football ground or on the way to / from a football match.
However, the Police, Crime and Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 (“the 2022 Act”) widened the scope for FBOs to be imposed in the following circumstances:
- Offences alleged to have been committed whilst on a journey to / from a football match or during the period relevant to the football match (now defined as 24 hours before kick-off and 24 hours after the match has finished).
- Racially or religiously aggravated public order offences committed at any time against a football organisation or a person with a prescribed connection to a football organisation (e.g. a player, manager, coach, referee, match official, or journalist).
- Offences pertaining to Section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 or Section 127(1) of the Communications Act 2003, without any limitations on time or geography.
Why is this considered to be a “landmark ruling”?
The issuing of an FBO following racist abuse directed at a player is nothing new. For example, during a match between Chelsea FC and Tottenham Hotspur FC on 14 August 2022, a Chelsea fan made a racist gesture to Heung-Min Son. The fan was identified when images of the incident were shared on social media and was later issued with a 3-year FBO. However, the FBO imposed on Mr Neill is the first of its kind to be issued under the 2022 Act and makes it clear that the court will impose real consequences on perpetrators of online hate and discrimination.
Another aspect of this case that makes it unique is that the racist message was not specifically connected to a football match. Mr Neill is a Newcastle FC fan, but he sent the message following a match between Brentford FC and Brighton & Hove Albion FC. Although Mr Neill was watching the match, the police determined that the racial abuse in this case was not directly related to football – yet it still resulted in an FBO, sending a strong message that racism and discrimination will not be tolerated in football.
Are there any consequences for breaching an FBO?
There may be some difficulties in enforcing FBOs. For example, whilst there can be cross-referencing to names on match tickets, how often are tickets bought by one person on behalf of another? Fans do not have to show their ID in order to enter a stadium and facial recognition software is not yet used by Premier League clubs.
However, there are strict consequences for anyone found to be in breach of an FBO. In 2020, a Tranmere Rovers FC fan, Ryan Ferguson, was found guilty of 2 breaches of a 5-year FBO issued against him in February 2019. The first was committed in October 2019, when Mr Ferguson travelled to Birkenhead in breach of the condition that he must not travel to a town, city or place where Tranmere Rovers were playing a regulated football match. The second was committed in January 2020, where Mr Ferguson was found to be present on Spellow Lane in Liverpool (on the day of a Merseyside Derby), in breach of the condition that he must not be within one mile of any football stadium 4 hours before kick-off, during play or 4 hours after the match has ended. Mr Ferguson was given an 8-week sentence suspended for 12 months, a 12-month supervision order, and 100 hours unpaid work. He was also ordered to pay a £85 fine and a £122 victim surcharge.
In accordance with section 14J of the 1989 Act, a breach of any requirement imposed by an FBO will be a criminal offence. A person guilty of such an offence will be liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for up to 12 months and / or a fine.