Widespread cocaine use was blamed by police for an epidemic of pitch invasions, missile-throwing, flares and hate crimes that saw football-related arrests surge to their worst level for eight years last season.
Damning figures released on Thursday by the Home Office showed there had been 2,198 such arrests during the first full campaign since the coronavirus pandemic, up 59 per cent from 2018-19 and the most since 2013-14.
West Ham United fans were the worst offenders, with 95 arrests, followed by Manchester City (76), Manchester United (72), Leicester City (59) and Everton (58).
The figures were compounded by a 127 per cent increase in pitch invasions (441) compared to three years earlier, an 118 per cent increase in the possession of pyrotechnics (729), a 99 per cent increase in hate crime incidents (384), and an 86 per cent increase in the throwing of missiles.
The data did not specify how many arrests had been drug-related but police have long warned about the role played by cocaine in disorder at games and the Government announced in May plans to impose banning orders on those who sell or take it at football matches.
Chief Constable Mark Roberts, the National Police Chief Council lead for football policing, told the Daily Telegraph: “We’re increasingly finding people in possession; we know that when there’s a visible operation, we see an awful lot of drugs discarded and we have done some work in support of the Home Office bringing forward the drugs element of the banning order, such as swabbing toilets in grounds. We do it before to check there’s a clean reading and then afterwards. And it’s almost entirely a 100 per cent hit on cocaine. So we know that it’s prevalent.”
Cocaine use was among the factors blamed for the hooliganism that marred last year’s European Championship final, while the return of supporters to grounds following the height of the pandemic has seen a spike in the kind of offences thought to have been stamped out 30 years ago.
That has led to a crackdown by the Football Association, Premier League and English Football League, culminating in an announcement on Wednesday that fans caught carrying or activating pyrotechnics or smoke bombs, or entering the pitch without permission, would receive an automatic club ban with a minimum term of one year.
Roberts added: “The release of these statistics underlines that the rise in disorder we saw at the mid-season point of 2021/22 has continued, and cannot just be put down to fans returning to stadiums after lockdown.
“Disorder is a problem that has not gone away, and throughout the whole of last season we saw an increase in crime at football matches across the country – from the Premier League right down to the National League.
“Anyone who commits a criminal offence either outside or inside a football ground can expect to face the consequences of their actions. The increase in arrests and football banning orders demonstrates that the police are taking positive action to tackle the problems, working closely with the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service]. We collectively need to make football a safe environment for the overwhelming majority of supporters who just want to enjoy the game.”
Minister for the Home Office Jeremy Quin said: “Our football clubs are at the heart of our communities, and it is unacceptable that the game we all love is tarnished by a minority of selfish troublemakers.
“The increase in football-related arrests shows that police are taking firm action to stop this disorder and preserve the enjoyment of the game for fans and families which I wholeheartedly support.”