The sun is struggling to lift itself over the warehouse units and office blocks. In fact, it might as well not bother, as it’s unlikely to pierce the gloomy grey cloud hanging over South Yorkshire Police HQ. Sheffield is in bed, presumably sleeping off the previous night’s excesses, maybe even dreaming of better times when this great footballing city boasted two top flight clubs. But more on that later…
For now, FHM is sat in a lecture theatre accompanied by over 100 suited and booted public order officials better known as riot police. We’re deep inside the HQ, listening in as a commander, grey-haired and with a been-there-done-that-locked-the-buggers-up look on his face, reels off the day’s agenda.
It’s the small matter of looking after 28,136 people, many of whom will be blind drunk, lots with a deep-seated hatred for each other they’ve harboured their whole lives, and a handful hell bent on causing trouble: it’s derby day in the Steel City.
Not since 1980 has this fixture been played in the third tier of English football. They were very different times back then: the country was in a deep economic recession, unemployment was at its highest since the ’30s and… er, so maybe things weren’t that different. It was also a dark period for the game, with the hooliganism endemic at grounds across the country making the front pages on an almost daily basis. Thirty years later though, any sniff of a ruckus and the South Yorkshire Constabulary have a full technological arsenal ready to unleash on wrongdoers, as well as some good old-fashioned pooping police ponies.
The impressive techy set-up is in full swing in the control room at police HQ – an open-plan office lined with parallel banks of computers, which look like they’re capable of launching a tactical nuclear strike at the very least. Staff are leaving the adjacent kitchen with their third brew of the morning, drinking cardboard-tasting tea out of paper cups.
Three large screens at the front of the room beam back a CCTV feed of potential risk areas in the city centre, a map of the streets around United’s Bramall Lane ground and, with the sound up loud, the pre-match build-up to the Australia v New Zealand rugby World Cup semi-final.
Officer Tina Hogg puts away her iPhone and wipes the sleep from her eyes. “I’ve been up since 5am this morning – I’m not a happy bunny. It gets me that they’re in the pubs at this time in the morning,” she says, pointing at live CCTV footage of punters now filing into a local boozer. “All I want right now is a coffee.”
Not that she doesn’t know a thing or two about football fanaticism. Her husband, Dave, is a policeman himself and rides in the motorbike unit. He also happens to be a huge Sheffield Wednesday fan.
“I once had a red and white-striped swimming costume. I wanted to take it on holiday but couldn’t find it. I asked him and he admitted that he’d cut it up and thrown it out, because it was in United colours!”
We arrive at the ground, two and a half hours before kick-off. The mounted unit has just had its briefing and the officers are leading their horses out of their trailers. “Like John Wayne, innit?” says Acting Sergeant Paul Brown with a wide, toothy smile. Not so much like John Wayne is the mammoth pile of manure that one of the horses has just unloaded in the middle of the street.
“That’s the most complained about product,” admits Brown, while one of his colleagues sweeps the poop discreetly under the horsebox for someone else to clean up. “People say to me: ‘If my dog had done that, I’d have got a fine.’ To which I say, ‘If your dog’s done that, you need to take it to the vet.’”
There’s more shit to clean up a few streets away: a siren sounds and squads of police officers ten-strong run up the hill to a corner outside the Railway Hotel pub. The source of the commotion is a small clash between rival supporters who have managed to come together despite the police barriers designed to keep them apart – a losing battle when the two-sets of fans live in the same city. A handful of red-faced and bloody-nosed people are arrested and carted off in police vans, apparently more disappointed to be missing the game than anything else. One Wednesday fan blurting out something about having a ticket in his pocket while being unceremoniously launched face first into the back of a van.
But the officers don’t seem too concerned about the trouble. PC Driver is one of them: “They wait until they get within 30 yards of us, then they start shouting at each other and hiding behind us. There are always a couple who get brave in the crowd, but it’s just a bit of handbags.”
Kick-off, and apart from the handful arrested on minor public disorder offences, all the fans are inside the stadium, full to capacity. For the first time today, the majority of the police outside can take a breather. And for most, this is their first chance to have a bite to eat and a much needed piss.
The community hall underneath one of the stands has been given over to the police. Officers pile in and hotfoot it straight to the loo, one or two desperately unzipping their flies on their way through the door. For DC Benjamin Hobson, there’s one thing that no policeman can go without: “bladder control”.
“You learn to get good at it fairly quickly,” says Hobson. “It’s alright here, but if you’re working in a field all day outside a nuclear plant, or at a protest, there’s nowhere to go. You just have to hold it in.”
Getting fed and watered poses similar challenges. Though today, because of the scale of the operation and the amount of time officers have to spend out on the streets, they’ve been provided with packed lunches. Of sorts.
Brown paper bags are doled out, with fairly uninspiring contents: a sandwich (cheese, tuna, or beef and onion), a bag of crisps, a Twix and a bottle of water – the Twix aside, the paper bag is probably the most appetising thing on offer. The guys and girls in hi-vis grab one each and find a seat.
With one exception. PC Alec Gibbons, still wearing the smudged stamp on the back of his hand showing that he’s well acquainted with the city’s night-life, is tucking into a chicken, spinach and onion sandwich that he’s been keeping under surveillance in a tupperware in the van all morning.
“I have a very refined palete,” he says. “I know what I like, and I like what I know. You won’t find this sandwich in any shops. I should patent it.” Though by the looks of things, he might have been better off with the paper bag.
Suddenly, the roof above us starts to shake, accompanied by an ominous rumble and the screams of what sounds like… joy. The United fans
in the stand over our heads are celebrating a goal. Just nine minutes later, the room rumbles again as the Blades go 2-0 up. One person not cheering the score is Dave Hogg, the man who threw out his wife’s swimming costume because it was in the United colours.
His colleagues on the motorbike unit, all jolly-looking men (and why not when their job is to ride around on a motorbike fighting crime – like Batman but without the weird suit) are bantering away, helmets on the table, sandwiches in hand. But Hogg looks a little less upbeat.
With the police radio in one ear and the football commentary in the other, he’s well aware of the score: now 2-1 to United and with the match all but done. He may be a big footy fan, but his job’s shown him the nasty side of the sport, and he doesn’t like it.
“I think it’s a shame seeing grown men behaving like children and fighting in the streets over football. That’s what’s really sad.”
Hogg’s fellow Wednesday fans are now dribbling out of the stadium, leaving early to miss the traffic and spare themselves the taunts from the red and white half of the ground. It’s misplaced pessimism though: four minutes from time the Owls bag a late equaliser. The game finishes 2-2, taking Wednesday five points clear of their bitter rivals in the League One table.
Officer Chris Stringer was born and bred in the Steel City, and is another Wednesday fan. Surely he must miss being in the crowd for a game as good as this, instead of having to spend the whole time standing outside the ground busting for a piss.
“A couple of mates of mine are season ticket holders and are in the ground now. It would be good to be in there watching it, but working it can be more exciting, and more interesting, than watching. Anyway,” he adds, “it’s £30 for a ticket – I can’t afford that on my policeman’s wages!”
Half an hour after the final whistle, the area surrounding the stadium is back to its early morning calm, the relative silence broken only by SPC Nick Lees getting a call on his police Blackberry. His ringtone? Sound Of Da Police by KRS-One, obviously.
The programmes and empty cups littering the floor, and the horse shit now trodden flat into the ground are the only signs that there was a game on at all. And despite being billed as one of the fiercest local rivalries in European football, the derby has come and gone without any real beef (besides that in the sandwiches). Football has changed, thanks as much to the will of the fans as the efforts of the police. And the hooliganism and violence that used to go hand-in-hand with games like this one are hopefully gone for good.
The horses are led back to their trailers. The mounted unit’s work done for the day, PC Driver pats his steed firmly on the side and gives him a Trebor mint to gobble up. “There’s a farm in Barnsley where we’ll take them now. They’ll go back, have a big old tea, and a nice early night.” Smug in the knowledge, no doubt, that there are hundreds of football fans walking around Sheffield with horse shit stuck to their previously spotless trainers.
Words: Dan Masoliver
Photography: Muir Vidler