So there I was putting together another whimsical column full of semi-humorous jokes about Chris Wood’s aerial prowess and the irresistible allure of Lancashire mill towns, when along comes the holy shit show trinity of UEFA’s legendary organisational talents, the French police’s velvet-gloved sensitivity, and social media’s boundless fuck-wittery to cast us back into the darker recesses of football fandom.

A whole two weeks ago, back in those halcyon days when booing the national anthem was the most outrageous thing to happen at a major football final, I wrote at length about Liverpool fans and the collective trauma of Hillsborough. Little did I know that I’d be obliged to re-tread that well-worn path quite so quickly. Because there is much to concern us about events in Paris on Saturday, not least that this was European football’s showpiece match hosted at a stadium barely 25 years old and purpose-built for precisely this kind of event.

First, the best of the whole sorry affair, which started off as its worst. Even by its own standards, the extent of tribal toxicity on social media as events unfolded was quite breath-taking, with fans of other clubs concluding from the comfort of their parents’ bedrooms that Liverpool fans were to blame for whatever had gone wrong. But this was also the moment when Twitter became a hitherto unlikely force for truth. Aided by the first-hand accounts of sports journalists who also found themselves caught up in events, the testimony of Reds fans has since been able to assert itself. Thanks to the flood of photos, videos, and detailed narrative threads posted online, the reality of the situation now seems beyond doubt.

As a crude tactic to filter out any ticketless fans, or those with counterfeit tickets, the normal access routes were deliberately blocked with police vans, forcing supporters into narrow bottlenecks, which inevitably led to crushes and delays as more and more fans arrived. Once at the turnstiles, many found them closed or not working, causing further problems, exacerbated by local residents chancing their arm at forcing entry. Meanwhile, the notoriously friendly CRS – the French riot police – and their colleagues amused themselves by indiscriminately tear-gassing and pepper-spraying fans, even if they were children with legitimate tickets. After the match, countless supporters were attacked and had belongings stolen as they tried to return to the city centre, the police presence now mysteriously non-existent.

In this context, UEFA’s response was shameful and straight out of the South Yorkshire constabulary playbook. The delays to kick off were immediately and publicly blamed on “late arriving fans” – including an announcement on the big screen in the stadium for all to see – when  it was clear that those unable to enter the stadium had arrived in good time and been forced to wait for hours.

One false claim was soon followed by another, that thousands of ticketless fans has caused the problems, something doubled down on by the French Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin. Scarcely credibly, Darmanin put the number of fans at the stadium with fake tickets at 30-40,000. Quite where all these people disappeared to at kick off hasn’t yet been explained, but Wednesday’s front-page of the French newspaper Libération, depicting the French minister as Pinnochio with the headline “Darmaninre fake le match”, tells you all you need to know about the credibility of his claims.

Of course, there will have been ticketless fans. And there’s an obvious question to be asked about the apparent lack of problems at the Real end of the stadium, but it seems that they were routed to another metro station and the same police tactics not applied. As of Friday morning, though, even the Madrid club were demanding answers from the authorities, and we could just as easily point to the lack of any such trouble at previous European games involving Liverpool this season or the 2019 final in Madrid. This does look very much like a specific failing of the French policing operation.

As such, we should have legitimate concerns about a vicious circle perpetuating damaging perceptions of English football fans. A reputation for trouble (hardly enhanced by last year’s Euro final) prompted a heavy-handed and counterproductive police operation, which led to the very obvious problems we saw on Saturday. That, in turn, feeds a media narrative and wider perceptions of fans, which reinforces the reputation that caused the problem in the first place.

But this isn’t a one-off or simply a question of the treatment of English fans abroad. At Everton and Leeds this season, I experienced a similarly senseless narrowing of access points that caused alarming bottlenecks with no signage or other prior indication. And we all know that the failure of unstaffed turnstiles at Elland Road caused some of the most worrying scenes that we’ve experienced for a long time. Underpaid, inexperienced, and untrained stewards were powerless to intervene, just as they have been elsewhere when faced with the growing spate of pitch invasions.

At its heart, though, this is a question of mentality and empathy on the part of the authorities. Hillsborough was the inevitable consequence of the dehumanisation of football fans through the 1980s, caged in behind fences, not individual human beings but an alien mass to be controlled, cattle to be corralled by whatever means. And if you think that mentality has long gone, then you would do well to remind yourself of the ever so enlightened view of safe standing put forward last year by Mark Roberts, the Chief Constable of Cheshire.

Externalising a paranoid fear of losing physical control over fan-occupied spaces, Roberts tellingly expressed concern about fans “migrating” around the ground and becoming a drug-fuelled mob. Much as we might want to dismiss his views as irrelevant and out of touch, his long-standing role as the national lead for UK football policing, as well as the head of UK policing support at the European Championships in 2016 and the World Cup in 2018, suggest otherwise. As, for that matter, do ever expanding police powers elsewhere in society to intervene and re-design the physical spaces we use.

Fundamentally, those taking decisions about fans –whether UEFA officials or French police and ministers, not to mention their equivalents in the UK and at the Premier League–have no real understanding of what it is to be a football fan and no interest in acquiring that understanding. And as long as that persists, they’ll continue to prioritise the self-serving vanity of their opening ceremonies and anthems over insignificant fripperies like fan safety.

Matthew Philpotts @mjp19731