Express & Star

Exclusive: Misogyny and threats to women in football now so bad, police are appointing a specialist investigator

A massive increase in misogyny directed at women in football has led to West Midlands Police appointing a full time investigator to deal with the issue.

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Aston Villa's Alisha Lehmann (left) and Chelsea's Niamh Charles battle for the ball during the Barclays Women's Super League match at Poundland Bescot Stadium, Walsall in April 2023.

The female officer will ensure trolls who target glamorous Aston Villa Women's striker Alisha Lehmann, who has been the subject of vile abuse and rape threats, are prosecuted.

The new role has been created by the Black Country based West Midlands Police Football Unit which deals with all football related crime in the region.

Rising popularity and terrestrial coverage of the women's game has been accompanied by more online abuse, rape threats and racist abuse of players. Female referees in the men's game have also been subject to abuse from the terraces.

The football unit, which works out of Halesowen Police Station, investigates hate crime in football, online, in stadiums and in grass roots football as well as keeping thousands of fans safe each week.

The dark days of bananas being thrown at black players from the terraces and regular running battles between fans are thankfully in the past but there is still a minority who still abuse players, officials and fans.

PC Stuart Ward, who is the unit's dedicated football hate crime investigator, told the Express & Star the new role is in response to rising misogyny.

He said: "We have appointed a new officer who will be dealing with misogyny in football and threats to women and girls, whether it be online, in stadiums or in grass roots football."

The football unit used to deal with thousands of football hooligans fighting pitch battles inside grounds, outside grounds, in railway stations and wherever else they would clash. In Europe the 1970s and 1980s was characterised by "the English problem" until UEFA banned British clubs in the wake of the Heysel Disaster.

Police forces became involved in the logistics of ensuring thousands of football fans could criss cross the country using public transport and requiring police escorts. However, a combination of hooligans raving instead of fighting in the late 1980s, the fall-out from the Hillsborough disaster and the middle classes returning to the national game after Italia 1990, meant football became a safer spectator sport.

However, the police still play a vital role in ensuring the safety of thousands of fans every week and each club has a dedicated officer. The football unit has an inspector, a sergeant, six club linked officers, three investigators. One deals with public disorder, hand to hand fighting, missiles thrown on the pitch etc, PC Ward dealing with hate crimes and now a new officer dealing with misogyny.

Last week the ugly face of European football resulted in several police officers injured as Polish hooligans went on the rampage outside Villa Park. Legia Warsaw's fans were prevented from attending their match with Aston Villa in the Europa Conference League which sparked angry mobs lashing out against Villa fans, local residents and the police.

PC Ward was appointed in January 2021, he said: "The post was created after investigations by the police where there had been some criticism of the police and lessons needed to be learnt. I was to pick up all the hate crime cases and provide a standardised approach.

"A hate crime is about perception, if someone perceives it was motivated by hostility to race, religion, disability, sexuality or gender ID, then we have a hate crime. We have laws in place which cover public order legislation, we will then find out what has gone on, what their thoughts are, were they sickened by it. Every case is different.

"We rely on reports from supporters, I enjoy going to football matches, I enjoy the banter, but a line can be crossed when it becomes discriminatory, would they spout off like that in the Bull Ring Shopping Centre? Then they shouldn't in a football ground."

Despite winning the Euros and reaching the World Cup Final England's Lionesses are some of the most abused athletes in the world.

Hate Lab, which collects data on hate speech, found 92 per cent of the England women’s national football team were subjected to hate speech on social media platforms in the build-up to the Euros two years ago. Some 96 per cent of the abuse was misogynistic, while four per cent was homophobic. Researchers analysed more than 78,000 social media posts aimed at the Lionesses. England full-back Demi Stokes revealed the constant abuse "really affected how the team played". With the Women's Super League also being broadcast on terrestrial TV, whereas most men's matches require paid subscription, more men are watching female football than ever before, creating yet more online misogyny.

Aston Villa Women's striker Alisha Lehmann has more than 17 million social media followers and has spoken about the vile abuse she receives, she was even surrounded by a baying mob in a Manchester nightclub and subjected to threats.

The next time the Swiss star is threatened the newly appointed officer will be on hand to support the 24-year-old and track down the perpetrator.

Social media and video sharing platforms can mean abuse is seen by millions within hours, and even if no-one in the ground made a complaint an offended viewer can report a crime to the police.

PC Ward said: "We take every complaint seriously, with TikTok videos can be shared and seen by millions of people within hours of an incident. If a viewer lodges a complaint then we try and contact the victim. If they want to make a complaint we will pursue it. Some victims do not want to interact with the police or make a complaint."

PC Ward, a West Bromwich Albion fan who has played semi-professional football, has forged close working relationships with football clubs, fans, social media companies and victims of

He said: "We have good relationships with all our local football clubs. We share information, they can act on information we give them and visa versa."

Fans who are caught using hate speech but who are not charged with a crime can still be punished.

PC Ward said: "Clubs will ban fans who have been caught being hateful and abusive. They can revoke season tickets and ensure decent fans do not have to endure abuse."

Rio Ferdinand with PC Stuart Ward outside Wolverhampton Crown Court

Recent laws have entered hate speech into law, the legal definition is "expressions of hatred toward someone on account of that person's colour, race, sex, disability, nationality (including citizenship), ethnic or national origin, religion, gender reassignment, or sexual orientation is forbidden." And if that has a football element and occurs in the West Midlands then PC Ward will investigate.

However, stadiums have traditionally been home to "terrace humour" which has been described as one of the few remaining collective expressions of working class wit. But what was once passed off as gallows humor can now be a crime.

Where previous generations of hooligans it was a case of sticks and stones might hurt their bones now words will hurt younger fans, who might not even be in the stadium but still be triggered watching footage at home.

But the police have to distinguish between banter and abuse. For decades Manchester United fans have been the target of chants about the 1965 Munich Air Disaster which claimed the lives of several Busby Babes.

Now "tragedy chanting" can be deemed a crime and fans joining in could find themselves with a criminal record. With minute's silences almost a weekly occurrence marking a multitude of footballing and none-football tragedies, the temptation for yobs to have a sickening chant heard amid the silence has never been greater.

PC Ward said: "We all want good atmospheres in grounds, it is what makes football what it is, I am a football fan myself. Of course there will be banter between different fans and the police but a line can be crossed.

"Nobody takes their family to a football match to hear hate speech, the difference is about the motives of the person, do they have hateful intentions, is it coming from a place of malice."

He added: "Tragedy chanting is not acceptable, whether it be about the Munich Air Disaster aimed at Manchester United, Hillsborough chants to Liverpool fans or more recently we have seen tragedy chants to Leicester City fans about the helicopter crash which killed their owner a few years ago."

He said: "We don't see the clear racist behaviour where black players had bananas thrown at them and there was clear racist behaviour in stadiums, that we saw in the 1970s and 1980s anymore because society has changed. But people report all sorts of stuff to us, they don't think it is acceptable inside and outside football.

"And supporters do not have to tell an officer at the game they can report online, so we see so many different types of complaints. Each of our six clubs have text lines which people can report complaints to."

Last year the CPS began issuing banning orders to online abusers, whereas before they were only handed to supporters who had committed a crime in the stadium, now they can be banned from the ground for abusing people online.

Keyboard warriors and trolls who abuse from their bedroom in the West Midlands now need to think twice before spewing hateful messages as PC Ward will be on their case.

He said: "We get made aware of a variety of issues online, whatever you post online there is a footprint. There is often a screenshot, if it is about football then we will work with the UK Football Policing Unit who have strong links with social media platforms and get data from that account. If it comes back it was sent from the West Midlands then I would investigate."

Judges have begun passing tougher sentences for hate crime after prosecutors called for "sentence uplift because of the aggravated nature of a hate crime".

Prosecutors now ask the court for banning orders in all instances where they are available, Douglas Mackay, of the CPS, said: “Football banning orders are one of the many tools available to the justice system for imposition on offenders who are convicted of crimes related to our national game.

“This new CPS legal guidance gives prosecutors wider authority to request banning orders from the courts. It is another consequence for those guilty of shameful behaviour.

“Over recent years hate crimes relating to sporting events have been on the rise. The recent internal UK Football Policing Unit mid-season report has shown a significant rise in football-related criminality compared to pre-pandemic levels.

“At the CPS, we play a crucial role in tackling these crimes and making our national sport inclusive and safe to watch. There is no place for hate in football. Hate crime can have a profound impact on victims.”

On Friday Jamie Arnold, who was found guilty of racist and abusive behaviour after aiming monkey gestures to BT Sports pundit Rio Ferdinand at The Molineux in 2021, was handed a six month sentence at Wolverhampton Crown Court.

However, judges have been told by the Ministry of Justice to avoid sending non-violent criminals to jail due to the overpopulation problem in the country's jails.

The high profile of the case, which saw Rio Ferdinand give evidence at Wolverhampton Crown Court, will act as a deterrent to fans across the country who now know any racist abuse in a stadium could result in prosecution and loss of reputation.

PC Ward does not just deal with Premier League and English Football League clubs, he said: "We deal with clubs from the entire pyramid down to grass roots football. Referees should be able to go to matches without the fear of abuse."

In May a non-league cup final ended in violence and chaos after first players and then fans began fighting. The referee had to abandon the West Midlands Regional League Division One final at Tipton Sports and Social Ground between Wolverhampton's Warstones Wanderers were playing Birmingham's Saltley Stallions.

Within hours both clubs and fans were posting videos of the violence.

Despite video evidence of several assaults no criminal charges were lodged leaving the West Midlands FA to punish the clubs.

PC Ward said: "We rely on supporters reporting crimes so we can investigate them. If victims do not want to give evidence, like Rio Ferdinand did, then it is very hard to bring charges.

"However, our roles also include education, we go into schools, colleges, foundations and speak to young players. If we can educate individuals about the consequences of abusive behaviour, using examples like Jamie Arnold and Rio Ferdinand, then we will be closer to ending abuse and hate speech in all levels of football."