Blog Sports Law 4th May 2021

Sanctions for supporter disorder loom over the big six in the wake of the doomed European Super League project.

The events at Old Trafford suggest that an immediate consequence of the (so-called) ‘big six’ clubs’ dalliance with the ESL is significant supporter disorder. The clubs will need to actively mitigate that risk if they want to avoid sanctions.

Last Sunday, disgruntled Manchester United supporters successfully sabotaged one of the biggest fixtures in world football. United were due to play Liverpool at Old Trafford. What started as a peaceful protest against the club’s ownership by the Glazer family escalated into something altogether more chaotic and violent: supporters broke into the stadium and made their way on to the pitch; lit flares were thrown; police officers and stewards were reported to have been injured. Eventually, and inevitably, a decision was made to postpone the game.

The recent background to the disorder is well-known. A little more than two weeks ago, the big six – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur – were announced as founder members of the European Super League (‘ESL’), alongside other clubs from the European elite.

Joel Glazer, the Manchester United co-chairman, was appointed as a vice-chairman of the ESL: his presence appears to have regalvanised Manchester United supporters in their opposition to the Glazers’ control of the club.

The idea of the ESL was met with almost universal opposition from supporters, players, managers, other clubs, UEFA and FIFA, but also politicians and national governments. A mere 48 hours after it was first announced, the ESL was all but dead.

Notwithstanding the palpable public and political desire to punish the big six clubs, what sanction, if any, will result from the clubs’ involvement in the ESL remains unclear. Investigations take time. A project like the ESL was not necessarily in mind when football’s governing bodies drafted the current rules and regulations. It seems inevitable that future regulations will address exactly this type of (mis)conduct directly.

In the meantime, however, a more immediate problem is the heightened risk of supporter disorder, an issue that in recent months has had diminished importance given the prohibition on fans attending football matches. Regardless of what was known by Manchester United before Sunday, one effect of events at Old Trafford is that the big six are now on notice of the heightened risk: if the big six clubs misjudged the mood of their supporters by endorsing the ESL, they ought not to misjudge their response to the heightened risk of disorder, as it may lead to sanction by The FA.

The FA takes supporter disorder seriously.  Under FA rules, any supporter disorder – including violent or threatening behaviour, unauthorised encroachment onto the pitch area, and the throwing of missiles – amounts to prima facie misconduct. Liability is subject only to a due diligence defence under rule FA Rule E21, which provides:

It shall be a defence in respect of charges against a Club for Misconduct by spectators and all persons purporting to be supporters or followers of the Club, if it can show that all events, incidents or occurrences complained of were the result of circumstances over which it had no control, or for reasons of crowd safety, and that its responsible officers or agents had used all due diligence to ensure that its said responsibility was discharged.

Not only does a club bear the burden of proving the defence on the balance of probabilities, the defence is difficult to establish, given the references to “all events”, “no control”, and “all due diligence”.  The success of any such defence may turn on the intelligence available to the club about the risk of potential disorder before it occurs, risk assessments, and the adequacy of the security and stewarding arrangements in place. As the fallout from the ESL debacle continues, clubs will have to address the new risk of disorder posed by supporters outside, rather than inside, football grounds.

The big six face significant financial and footballing sanctions if they fail to grapple with this new reality; a reality which is – in no small part – of their own making.


Will Martin advises and represents clients in sports disciplinary matters. He has represented The Football Association at first instance and appellate level in relation to allegations of on and off-field field misconduct.


Categories: Blog