This afternoon Wrexham FC played Chester FC in what was expected to be a raucous occasion, Wrexham.com was ‘embedded’ at the police station and at the ground.
The Wrexham / Chester ‘Bubble Match’ was the first one to take place in the town, and was the first non-league ‘Bubble Match’ to happen. Due to the different nature and publicity of the Bubble, before, during and after the match, Wrexham.com took a slightly different view of the game, with someone inside the match, outside the match and finally exclusive access to the police station CCTV control centre.
A decision to turn the Derby match into a Bubble Match was announced earlier this month, and meant that essentially that fans (in this instance Chester) were instructed to gather at a certain point before travelling to the match. The fans also weren’t allowed in the match unless they had travelled down by coach, as they received their tickets for the game while on the journey to Wrexham. Many fans have complained about this arrangement saying it is heavy handed and criminalises football fans.
You can view our video of the outriders closing off the bypass, then followed by the heavily policed convoy in this video:
Preparations for the event began several months ago and we were told that the eventual aim is to have future Wrexham v Chester matches held at a more traditional 3pm. Throughout the day North Wales Police were present around and in the Racecourse, in the town, and while others were monitoring the CCTV and radios police were issuing information and reassurance via social media. Interestingly social media usage was being monitored by the Chief Constable in Colwyn Bay!
Inspector Mark Williams mentioned to us that the operation had to be ‘fluid’, as while they may be prepared for one event they never know what can happen next.
Police began arriving to the station at around eight am this morning to receive their briefing for the match itself. This included staff who were involved in patrolling the match itself. Shortly after, Wrexham.com had the chance to sit in on the community officer briefing, in which Inspector Williams assigned the PCSO’s their locations to patrol throughout the day. This included areas directly near the Racecourse such as Maesgwyn Road and Mold Road, but also bridges over the A483. It was stressed that policing for Wrexham had to go ahead as usual, rather than the football match being the sole focus, likewise that the policing role was to ensure public safety and that the football club complies with their security requirements.
The motto for the day was ‘friendly and reassuring’, as there was to be a huge police presence in the Plas Coch / Crispin Lane / Mold Road area and residents could be alarmed by this. Just a few days ago a letter was sent out by Cllr Phil Wynn telling residents that Mold Road would be closed and informing them of further details of the match. Amusingly Sergeant Paul Wycherley said he wanted the PCSO’s all out and about so the police station itself was ’like the Mary Celeste’.
Buses containing Chester fans left the Deva ‘stadium’ shortly after 11 and were taken via Queensferry before going down the A55 then on the A483 to Wrexham. This route appears to have been chosen for simplicitys sake, and also Chester Races were also taking place today. In total there was 18 coaches, several police vans, 4x4s plus motorbike outriders – and the LLPD chopper escorting the Chester fans to the Racecourse. The slip roads on the bypass were closed off as the coaches made their way into town, and there was a PCSO on each bridge during the journey.
There were a few questioning why there was a need for PCSO’s to be present at the flyovers on the A483, however we have been informed that it was to prevent the risk of anyone throwing things at the coaches as they drove into Wrexham. As big fans of the LLPD Chopper (and certain ‘cops on camera’ style shows), you can imagine our excitement when one Wrexham.com’er who was taking photos on a bridge appeared on the LLPD Choppers video feed.
The convoy processed down the roads in a journey that took around 40 minutes. There was no reported trouble during the journey, and although the entry by the buses to the Racecourse carparks seemed slow it was also uneventful. The buses used the Glyndwr University carpark, so thankfully the fixture was at a time when the campus was not fully in use.
Previously we have been critical of the placement and apparent non-restrictions of away fans. This was most visible in the recent Tranmere home friendly game where the away fans were policed in and around the ground, however once in the carparks mixing of fans took place making the previous restrictions essentially pointless.
Watching the aerial video of Chester fans being escorted from buses into their stand it seemed a straightforward process. The Chester fans arrived in a near empty stadium, as it was around an hour before kick off.
Prior to kick off we saw seats being ripped out of the Chester stand, something that looked like a flare being lit by Wrexham fans in the Mold Road stand plus a banner being unfurled.
The banner was held by people in the Wrexham end, and said “2 Dead Fans And 1 Dead Club” with another equally grim one nearby. The appearance of these was well beyond the usual derby match ‘banter’ we expected. The flags were a direct reference to a deceased Chester fans, with a flag naming one inviting people to ‘join X in hell’. Unsurprisingly these flags created even more tension at an already heated occasion.
During the match itself there was a number of police in attendance separating the fans. There was a line of police down the Mold Road side of the pitch, which made for interesting viewing when one Wrexham player stood near them to take a corner with limited room.
Within the stands themselves there were a number of stewards and police keeping the fans apart. As the match continued netting was put on some of the seats to stop people from attempting to get close to the pitch and one Chester fan did attempt to climb over it.
Throughout the game there were reports of fans throwing coins and stones at each other, along with the occasional piece of chair. There was also a report of an injured Steward, however we believe this was not serious. We also understand that somehow ‘CFC’ graffiti managed to be scrawled in the executive toilets in the ground!
We did observe fans of both sides being genuinely annoyed by fellow supporters as they wished to watch the football rather than the opposition support.
Amusingly one incident report came through the radios to the control room saying to ‘look out for the man standing next to the person in a blue shirt’. As the match was Wrexham v Chester you can imagine there were quite a few in blue shirts!
Just prior to the full time whistle Mold Road was closed off and several police vans were parked across the road to create a visible barrier between the fans exiting the ground and the area where it appeared that the Chester coaches could be leaving.
In reality the coaches ended up exiting via Plas Coch, however a group of Wrexham fans congregated by the Mold Road speed camera area.
Police then walked a line of officers up Mold Road pushing the group towards town.
This did get held up by the Post Office, however the group standing off with police did seperate once the police returned to vans and traffic was allowed to pass down the road. As we observed at the time the tactics appeared to be to avoid confrontation and be as low key as possible. In that particular instance it seems that the police making the first ‘move’ to leave the area ended the mini stand off very quickly.
The use of CCTV was an interesting element of the day, providing us with the chance to observe fans both in and outside of the match. Around an hour before the game there were reports of around 40 Wrexham fans walking down Rivulet Road, who were believed to be a risk group. As they approached the football ground, they were stopped by police who spoke with them and some of the group ended up returning towards town rather than attending the game.
We gained an insight to ‘police intelligence’, with Chester based ‘risk’ fans being identified and monitored by police spotters. One group of Chester fans were spotted getting into taxis, rather than using the official ‘bubble’ coaches. These fans were stopped when they arrived in the town and were not allowed to attend the match.
In total two Wrexham fans were arrested for being drunk and disorderly and a third for assault. One Chester fan was also arrested for assault.
Inspector Williams said: “I think it went very well. I think we all had our reservations about it, but the two groups of risk fans didn’t get the chance to cause any problems.
“The behaviour that took place at the ground showed we were right to keep them apart, and we managed to to prevent any incidents of disorder outside of the ground.
“We apologise for the disruption it has caused for local residents, it was one of the first times we have had a dedicated team together for the community. Overall we have had a positive response from people who live in the area.”
Sergeant Paul Wycherley told us “It is always hard to tell if we have done enough or too much”, which sums up the debate on the ‘bubble’ issue. He added “We could have kept the road closed until 6pm as authorised but it reopened at 3:30pm. All in all the agencies working together, we have done really well”
Retailers told us of concern that the pre-match build up could put people off from visiting town and the area. Thankfully this does not seem to have born fruit.
Throughout the day we went in and around town, and it is pleasing to say that the town centre was busy with a normal weekend shopping and entertainment day taking place. Those in town did look skywards wondering why the helicopter was out, however they did not seem to be affected by the large scale operation taking place up the road.
We did note that car parks and side streets did seem busier than usual, and we would guess this is due to the shift of people who normally park at the University being forced to park elsewhere.
The decision, which was stressed to us as a joint one between both clubs and the police, to use a ‘Bubble Match’ is one that will no doubt continue to divide people. Comments made to us ranged from it being an ‘utterly ridiculous waste of time’, others enquired about the money and police resources used, one enquiring if ‘human rights’ were compromised, to those praising how smoothly the operation went and the lack of trouble in town.
It is worth noting that just over 6000 football fans watched the game today, with 680 of those bussed in from Chester. The arrests represent 0.06% of those fans, obviously other incidents will not have either been detected, reported or acted on as of yet.
Despite the apparent success of today’s operation the concept of automatically restricting the movements of people just because they support a particular team does still not seem quite ‘right’.
Hopefully this years arrangements are not required in the future and the ongoing work between police, clubs, fans and the wider community can help get to that point – saving everyone time and money and bubbles!
Of course there was actually a game of football taking place, you can read our match report here!