Match day diary: How police horse team help keep crowds safe during football patrols
We all have our matchday routines – but for one team involved in the fixtures, there’s more to it than grabbing a pie and programme.
Northumbria Police’s mounted unit is called in to patrol around the grounds of Sunderland AFC and Newcastle United in the lead up to a game, as well as in the hours after the final whistle goes.
They are also called in to support forces including Cleveland during Middlesbrough FC matches and as well as much further afield, with games in Sheffield and the Old Firm matches in Glasgow among them.
Officers and grooms will tinsel-up their tack to help bring some extra festive cheer on Boxing Day as Sunderland take on Bolton Wanderers, with a 3pm kick-off.
Sergeant Stu Coates oversees the section, which is staffed by six PCs – Tony Fyall, Michelle Alexander, Beverley Crain, Julia Wright, Jo Watson and Lucy Adair, with grooms Catherine Hamilton, Paula Dey, Megan Curtis and Polly Sanderson helping to prep and care for its eigh horses, with a search on to find a ninth.
Sgt Coates, who has spent 22 years with the force so far and has previously been part of the response team responsible for Sunderland city centre, takes us through what goes into a matchday shift as they keep a watch from the saddle.
10am: Stables become a hive of activity as the working day begins
Because we need to be on the ground two-and-a-half hours before kick-off, we need to get the tack and cops have to get their personal equipment ready.
The match commander will have rung us in advance so we know what to expect and we can say what we’ll be able to provide for the match.
We know we need to get parked up at the ground itself or if we’re going to Newcastle, we use Barrack Road.
Noon: Getting set to head out on patrol
We want the horses on the ground by 12.30pm and we like to get a feel for the atmosphere, if it crackles, you know, and the match commander will tell us if there’s something we need to know, if intelligence has come in before the match and we know the layout of any other ground we go to.
On match day we have a patrol of four horses, each in a pair, and we go out and cover the pubs and head out to patrol furthest away first and make our way towards the ground as it gets busier, and we might escort the coaches in.
We are there primarily to engage really, but we do have different equipment for different categories of match, but what we have is what foot officers have, which is a long baton, and being on a horse is a challenge in itself.
The horses always wear eye protection, that is the most vulnerable part of them.
We get pyrotechnics now in crowds. We are the police and an easy target.
We do public order training through at Durham where there are flames, explosions and fire so they are trained in what to expect and when we’re out on patrols, we need to be ready for anything.
It can be quite an experience for our officers on foot who are in the thick of it, and quite often, when we arrive, they relax a bit as we can help control any crowd.
2pm: Excitement builds as crowds arrive for the match
In Sunderland, we’ll head by the Wheatsheaf, Colliery Tavern, the back alleys, the Metro stations and the streets around the stadium.
We can help control the crowds and if there’s anything spotted on the CCTV, the match commander will say to us go and see what’s happening.
Quite often people come up and say hello, they know the horses and bring them treats, people have their favourites.
We can help the team get into the ground and we’re all linked up by radio.
We can work in any big crowds and we can see things develop quicker than anyone can see on the ground.
3pm: First whistle means break time for the team
After the match has kicked off and people are inside the ground safe, we return the horses to the box for some refreshment and to give them a break.
We then need to get them ready to head back out and in position.
4.30pm Getting ready for full-time
We’ll be in touch with the control room who will tell us about any issue, so a great example is the Coventry match, where there was agitation on both sides.
Then we’re out into the crowd and talk to fans from other clubs and a lot of other clubs don’t have horses and they love to see them.
You’ve got to be a skilled police officer and quite often the officers here come from a public order background and have done the footwork.
6pm: Seeing people safely on their way
There are times when we’ll be asked by the commander to get to the site of a problem because we can get there and we can travel some distance really quickly and the foot officers are really pleased to see them.
We’ll be there until it goes quiet.
Sometimes we are on duty for 20 hours in this role, but we usually do four-hour patrols, and if they have been out for a long time, we make sure they have a long holiday afterwards.
7pm: Time for tea on return to the stables
We’ll have some feed ready for them for when they come back in.
We check them over for any issues. Everything is about the horses’ welfare.
They’ll get a break on Sunday and Monday if it’s a Saturday match, unless they are needed for something, and we’ll be back training on Tuesday.
We can turn them around really quickly if they are needed and get a patrol on the ground.