Children as young as 10 are being drawn into football hooliganism as violence and disorder increase at matches, a police chief has warned.
New figures show that in the 2021-22 season, more than 400 games saw incidents of unrest and anti-social behavior involving young fans aged 25 and under, and so banning orders were issued against children.
Mark Roberts, the national football policing officer, said The Independent the “worrying trend” was to see teenagers being used to transport drugs and weapons to stadiums.
“We see younger fans engaging in violence, banding together and actually looking for pre-planned mayhem,” he added.
“This is a worrying trend both in terms of the nature of the violence and the fact that young people are getting involved.
“What we see in operations is a lot of younger children. We’ve identified children as young as 10 walking around with groups, we see those in their early teens going to away games.
He was speaking after new official statistics showed a skyrocketing number of arrests linked to English and Welsh football matches, including for growing violent disorder, pitch invasions and the dangerous use of pyrotechnics.
The number of arrests was 59% higher than in 2018-19, which was the last normal year for play before the Covid pandemic, and the highest total for eight years.
Mr Roberts, who is Cheshire’s chief constable, said operations in areas such as Nottingham had revealed children being used to transport drugs and weapons under the ‘pernicious influence of the elderly’ .
“The concern is that in addition to the harm young people cause to others, they are susceptible to exploitation by older, more sinister characters,” he added.
“If they go to this particular way of doing things, it’s a problem for the next 20 years or so.”
Factors believed to be contributing to the rise in football unrest include the lifting of Covid restrictions after a period without matches, alcohol and cocaine use.
Mr Roberts warned that the violence does not simply ‘die off’ after the pandemic and that serious incidents have already been seen in the new season, saying the reasons for the increase will require ‘years of study academics to fully understand”.
PC Adam Collins, a Derbyshire Constabulary football officer, previously said The Independent there was a new generation of fans who were kids before March 2020 but can now drink and watch games unsupervised.
He said: “Before Covid they were 15-16 year olds going to games with their parents, then they were 17 or 18 and they found beer, and they weren’t being watched.
“It was almost like a perfect storm and it took us all by surprise.”
PC Collins said school closures during the pandemic have resulted in the halting of engagement sessions held by local police forces, leaving them scrambling to overcome lost years of “communication and education”.
Of the 1,308 football banning orders in force as of July 28, 36 had been issued to children between the ages of 10 and 17.
The number is expected to rise after a legal change in June lowered the threshold for imposing orders, meaning they can be triggered by behavior including using pyrotechnics or sending hateful messages online to players.
Police see the orders, which have been in place for at least three years and may see fans having their passports seized, as a major preventative and deterrent tool.
Mr Roberts said many football clubs also had programs in place to steer fans, especially young men and boys, away from crime and behavior that could see them slapped by an order.
“There is a very strong network of activities where we will try to educate people and not unnecessarily criminalize young people,” he added.
“While the focus is on us to arrest, prosecute and seek restraining orders for people criminally, as with all types of crimes, we have the other strings to our bow when it comes to diversion and education .”