Arsenal ticket protest ban yet another blow to football fans' free speech

It was a few minutes before kick off last Sunday when when the banners went up. To be fair they were more painted bed sheets than banners. One read “£62 and we’re still here.” Another said “£62!! Where will it stop?” The tone of the first was defiant, the second quietly despairing. Either way, as protests go, they were well mannered.

There had been much debate about the price of away tickets for Manchester City fans at Arsenal. Premiership clubs offer a bizarre pricing hierarchy whereby fans of the most successful clubs (invariably the richest clubs) are charged most for tickets. This might have a degree of fairness if, say, Manchester City’s owner Sheikh Mansour paid for the fans’ tickets, but he doesn’t. The reality is that a Manchester City fan is just as likely to be struggling financially as a Reading or QPR fan.

Even by premiership standards £62 for an away ticket is ludicrously high. Some fans boycotted the match, and 900 of the 3,000-strong allocation were reportedly returned to Arsenal. Others (me included) decided to go, enjoy the match (City’s first league victory at Arsenal in 37 years as it happens) and sing their heart out about the injustice of it all.

City supporter Richard Taylor, an estate agent from Stalybridge, had painted the banner the previous night in Manchester. He says he was impressed with the result. “It’s a lot neater than I thought it would be. Ticket prices are a big problem, especially for away supporters. I thought the banner might get the issue a bit of publicity.”

The banner that was banned from the Emirates at Richard Taylor’s home before the match –
photograph Richard Taylor

So 10 minutes before kick-off, he unfurled his handiwork.

“We’d only had it up a few seconds when a steward came over. He said we’ve been instructed by our bosses to take it away. Actually, he said ‘I agree with what you are saying’, but I’ve been told I’ve got to take it away’. I told him he had no right to take it off me, that it was peaceful protest, and there’s nothing offensive about the banner. He said ‘Don’t make my work harder for me because then I’ll have to get the police involved’.”

Reinforcements soon arrived in the form of the Metropolitan police. A couple of officers hurdled empty chairs Sweeney-style to reach the refuseniks. “They came over quite aggressive actually, jumping over the seats to get to us. Two came over to me and two stood at the end of the aisle. They demanded Taylor hand over the banner or be arrested. “Well I wasn’t going to walk out and miss the match. I’d paid £62 for it, so I gave the banner to them. We tried to argue about it, but it wasn’t worth getting kicked out when we’d paid £62.”

Did they say what they would arrest him for? “No.”

By now the whole away end were singing “£62 and we’re not here” [an adaptation of an old Manchester City chant].

This is by no means the first time peaceful protest and freedom of expression have been issues at football matches. In 2010, Manchester United fans said that they had been over-policed after unfurling banners protesting against the club-owners, the Glazer family. In 2008 anti-censorship campaigners (including Index on Censorship) complained after there was talk of banning Glasgow Rangers supporters from taunting Celtic fans with a song about the Irish famine (“’From Ireland they came, brought us nothing but trouble and shame’.) In 1998, Swindon Town chairman Rikki Hunt threeatened to ban fans for life after they had staged a sit-down protest following a 4-1 defeat and chanted for the sacking of their manager.

I asked Arsenal if they felt a football match at the Emirates was an inappropriate venue for protest and whether they did not believe in freedom of expression. The spokesman laughed and pointed out Arsenal’s admirable record on inclusion (they were the first club to be awarded anti-racism campaign Kick It Out‘s Advanced level of the Quality standard). “Of course we encourage freedom of expression, but in this case the banner was just too big. It impeded the views of supporters and was a health and safety issue.” What would Taylor have been arrested for? “Breach of the peace.”

So I mentioned another incident that happened just after Taylor’s banner was removed — police approached a man in the crowd wearing a felt-tip scribbled T-shirt. This time there were around a dozen officers.The police asked him to remove his T-shirt, and eventually he did.

I asked Arsenal if this was also a visibility/health and safety issue. The club said it had no record of this encounter, but asked what the fan had written on his T-shirt. “You can stick your £62 up your arse,” I said.

“Ah well, that’s just offensive isn’t it?” said the spokesman. “It’s nothing to do with the views expressed, just the language.”

At the end of the match, Richard Taylor retrieved his banner — the police had left it with the stewards for him to reclaim. Although he was “disgusted” by the club’s reaction to the banner, he believes it has only served to publicise his cause.

He mentioned model football clubs such as Borussia Dortmund, where he travelled to early in the season in the Champions League. “Our tickets were £24, and we had free travel on the day” For Taylor his campaign has now become two-pronged — not only is he fighting football clubs that charge excessive prices, he is also campaigning against those whom he believes are prohibiting the democratic right to peaceful protest.

Simon Hattenstone is a feature writer for the Guardian and a Manchester City supporter. He tweets at @shattenstone