Marseille trip far more eventful off the pitch than on it for United fans

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The first Manchester United fan I saw after walking out of Marseille St-Charles train station last Wednesday had a warning.

“Don’t bother with the Old Port,” he said. “We’ve just left. It’s getting a bit lairy down there. Too many pissed up idiots and a few snide locals eyeing them up. I wouldn’t be surprise if it kicked off.”

I heard similar several times before the match. It didn’t surprise. Marseille can be a rough and unforgiving port city. England fans were involved in prolonged disorder with local youths of North African descent around the bars of the Old Port during the 1998 World Cup, while there were incidents when United last played in France’s second city in 1999.

And while most United fans know how to behave and how to enjoy themselves on their travels, some do not. There’s a trend that continues at almost every Manchester United game in Europe. People drink heavily and turn up at the stadium late. Chaos and confusion ensues and the local authorities struggle to cope.

Some people have a vested interest in benefiting from the confusion – they have forged tickets or didn't have tickets in the first place. Innocent fans invariably become victims of a nervy, baton wielding local police force whose perception of English football fans is still stuck in the 1980s.

Last week, I started getting texts and emails before kick-off from United fans outraged by the over zealous and aggressive local police force. Fans had arrived half an hour before kick-off but missed the first 30 minutes of the game because they were kept in a warehouse which served as a holding pen.

They then queued to be searched and because the authorities couldn’t cope with the numbers of fans they had sold tickets to, crushes developed. Fans paid £60 for a match ticket which was not checked once – they could have been waving a metro ticket for all anyone cared. Communication from the police, most of whom were clad in a Robo Cop-style ensemble, was minimal and laced with aggression. One elderly fan was hit over the head with a police baton.

Despite being open on three sides, the Velodrome is a wonderful, atmospheric arena. The United fans played their part. They may have been caged by high fences into a section holding 2,500, but they were loud and their flags and flares added to the occasion.

There was a price to pay: seven fans were arrested, most for brandishing flares. Their punishment was tough: a five year ban from watching Manchester United games, a €1300 fine, one month suspended sentence and a year ban from France.

Ironic though, isn’t it, that television companies and magazines use images of fans with flares to illustrate the red hot atmosphere in a stadium? Ironic that at some Continental grounds they are tolerated, while at others you may as well be carrying a dead body.

And I doubt very much that the Marseille fans who shone lasers into the eyes of United fans were ever caught, let alone punished.

Some fans were right to complain, others clearly think they can get away with anything once they leave England. I saw the Twitter feed of one. During the afternoon of the game he was boasting about how drunk he was in Marseille. Later he was bemoaning the actions of the French police. You sense that there are two conflicting sides to that story.

Manchester United tend to be proactive and liaise with the FA and UEFA, but they have little control over the actions of foreign police forces.

I directed fans towards the Football Supporters Federation, who do an excellent job in representing fans abroad, but it’s not as simple as blaming a foreign police force for the ills of every travelling English fan – some really need to grow up because their behaviour makes life more difficult for the innocent majority.