Football Lads Alliance: Inside the central London march of far-right linked group

Will Worley

It was supposed to give a respectable face to football fans opposed to extremism. The Football Lads Alliance (FLA) - from clubs across the country - put aside their differences and descended onto central London for a march to pay their respects to the victims of terror.

But when confronted with a tiny group of silent counter-protestors behind a police line in Whitehall, they shouted: “Scum, scum, scum!’

The anti-racist group simply stood with their signs.

Beer cans were hurled and the police had to hold back the marchers. Coins were also allegedly thrown.

The day began more calmly for the FLA, many thousands of whom assembled at Hyde Park Corner to listen to speeches given from atop a double decker bus.

“We want to get Britain back from extremism,” said Paul Shepard, 54, who travelled in from Southend. “We don’t care who comes out, whether its gays or Muslims, as long as they support us … but football fans are at the core of it.”

Organisers said the plan was to show “concern” at the terror attacks which have blighted the UK and Europe in recent months, and to pay their respects to the victims.

Wreaths were brought by some marchers to be laid on Westminster Bridge, where five people were killed when a vehicle rammed them in March.

Unusually for football fans, the rally was intended to be a sombre affair and the walk through the capital would be done in silence.

The FLA presents itself as against all terrorism and extremism. But anti-racism activists have said members have links to the English Defence League (EDL) and other racist organisations.

Tommy Robinson, the group's founder was present at the march and occasionally mobbed by fans.

Prior to the march, Weyman Bennett, Co-Convenor of Stand up to Racism said: “We believe there is a real danger that the event could open the door to far right groups, that want to promote racism and Islamophobia.”

Michael Bradley, also of Stand up to Racism, was present at the event, and stressed there were some marchers who were not racist and were genuinely concerned about terror attacks.

But Mr Bradley added there had been sustained Islamophobic abuse on the group’s Facebook page leading up to the event that was tolerated for too long. Some planned speakers, cancelled at the last minute, were also linked to the far right. He was also concerned about how tolerated Mr Robinson was by organisers.

Members of the anti-extremist group Football Lads Alliance (FLA) and football fanbases from across the country gathered on London's Park Lane in demonstration against extremism, closing the five-lane carriageway to its usual throng of vehicles (PA Wire/PA Images)

Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott was among a number of politicians to express her concern over the march, and was abused by a number of attendees.

It is believed by some campaigners that the FLA is a bid to attract a more moderate football fans and develop into a new far right street movement (The EDL has now disintegrated). Veterans charity Walking With The Wounded withdrew from the event after being alerted to the fuller picture.

Everyone at the march The Independent spoke to was quick to deny it was a far right or racist event and there were a small number of black attendees.

Dean Essery, 53, came with a black friend, who did not want to be named.

“Its about making the government understand that people are fed up,” he said. “Terrorism is being ignored by the government … Lads [from rival clubs] who’ve been opposed for years are coming together to say that it should be addressed.”

But others were more blunt. “Muslims aren’t part of the country,” said a 45-year old man from east London, who asked to stay anonymous.

“They don’t mingle. They send their kids to madrassas. We’re being overrun and can’t say nothing about it. If you say so you get called racist.”

Despite the suspected connections of organisers and some attendees to the far right, there was much less drinking than at EDL marches, no flags and very little chanting, other than that prompted by speakers.

Iconography associated with nationalist movements was kept to a minimum, though was sometimes visible on button badges and tattoos.

Organisers worked hard to maintain discipline among the crowd where they could and people who felt compelled to break out into “England” chants on the way to Westminster were quickly quietened.

But as the crowd walked quietly towards the cenotaph, some seemed to forget the peaceful and sombre nature of their march.

A small group of counter demonstrators, vastly outnumbered, stood silently with signs and a banner reading: “No to Islamophobia”.

Nothing was said to the FLA, but the mood of the march quickly changed on sight of the opposing group. First they began clapping, then started chanting “who the f****** hell are you?”

The reaction quickly escalated, and unprovoked, they swore, hurled abuse and threats at the men and women on the other side of a line of police officers.

“Mug. I’ll f****** open you up,” a marcher in a pork pie hat hissed at a counter-demonstrator.

“They shouldn’t be here,” another said. “F****** paedophiles.”

The march briefly paused as men stopped to scream at them, pushing against the police line. A few missiles were thrown by those further back.

Shortly after, the FLA began singing the national anthem and moved onto Westminster Bridge for more speeches.

The Metropolitan Police said no arrests were made.

Mr Bradley urged moderate marchers to “think” about what was going on at the FLA event.

“If Tommy Robinson is there, and people are taking selfies with him, that isn’t good, said Mr Bradley. You’ve got to be worried about it all.”

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