Home Office ministers praised a crackdown on hooligans today as statistics revealed a 10% fall in football-related arrests.
But they admitted policing would need continual investment to tackle soccer violence.
Arrests for football-related disorder dropped to 3,982 during the 2003/04 season compared to 4,413 in 2002/03, despite record attendances and the Euro 2004 tournament in Portugal.
Police forces were last year handed a £5m (€7.2m), three-year fund for anti-hooliganism operations amid fears of a growing generation of young hooligans and a sharp rise in arrests.
The fall in arrests is thought to have been secured by a record use of banning orders, which prevent potential troublemakers attending games. The number of bans was up 45% from 1,794 in August 2003 to 2,596 in October .
Arrests of England supporters at international games also fell significantly from 261 to 70, despite riots in the Algarve resort of Albufeira during Euro 2004.
UK Home Office minister Caroline Flint said: “These statistics paint a very encouraging picture – with a 10% reduction in the number of arrests and an average of just 1.6 arrests per game.
“It is also pleasing to see a fall in the number of arrests at England internationals, reflecting the exemplary behaviour of the vast majority of fans in the run up to and during Euro 2004. However, the statistics reflect a lingering, if small, domestic disorder problem and we are not complacent.
“We will continue to ensure maximum use of the banning order legislation by providing ring-fenced funding to the police to proactively target known hooligans and maintain close international co-operation when England play away.”
Figures revealed that arrests were made at half of all Premiership matches, with the top flight accounting for 1,137 of last season’s arrests. Portsmouth fans topped a list of total arrests per club with 146 and had the most fans subjected to new banning orders, as courts issued 70 against their supporters.
Relegated Leeds United was second with 109 total arrests and Manchester United third with 108.
Coca-Cola Championship side Cardiff City continue to have the most supporters banned from their games, with 160 currently prevented from attending matches.
Though arrests for violent disorder, racist chanting and ticket touting fell over the season, there were rises in incidents of missile throwing and breaches of banning orders.
Police spotters stopped a total of 63 banned hooligans attempting to gain entry to matches, but said there was no evidence that anyone subject to an order had tried to travel overseas to games.
“Football-related disorder has not gone away, but our tough banning order legislation and targeted policing operations have had a significant impact in disrupting the activities of organised hooligan groups,” said Ms Flint.
David Swift, Deputy Chief Constable of Staffordshire Police and spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers said: “Whilst I am pleased with the statistics released today we should not assume violence and disorder has gone away.
“There has not been a massive reformation of trouble makers, rather rigorous controls and investigations by the police are having a positive effect.”
In addition to bans, police are also working to tackle so-called “bedroom generals” who orchestrate match day violence through internet chat rooms.
Dave Walker, a 37-year-old head of year at a Birmingham boys’ school, was jailed for two years and three months earlier this year for planning the so-called “Battle of Maze Hill” at an east London train station.
Three bystanders were hurt in the 2002 riot and 17 men were jailed for a total of 38 years for their roles in the violence.
The British Association of Chief Police Officers said the positive results were down to better intelligence and the utilisation of Home Office funding to create dedicated anti-hooligan operations.
Mr Swift said a total of 36 distinct police operations, targeting 630 known troublemakers, would continue until after the 2006 World Cup.
He added: “Government, police, the Crown Prosecution Service, force solicitors and courts are working with a clear understanding of legislation to good effect as the number of new bans shows.
“These achievements have been secured through better intelligence and risk assessment whilst the cost of policing football to clubs and taxpayers has reduced with 25% of matches now police free.
“On the relatively few occasions major disorder has occurred, police have mounted very successful operations with high conviction rates, bans and jail sentences.
“Public revulsion of football hooliganism is demonstrated by the virtual 100% successful identification rate when photographs of wanted troublemakers are published.”
He also claimed that the low number of England fans arrested at Euro 2004 was a result of better policing and the additional banning orders.
“The massive reduction in arrests of England followers is a major achievement. The major ports policing operations and the commitment of forces has ensured those banned have not travelled abroad and tarnished England’s reputation,” said Mr Swift.
:: Top 10 total league match arrests by club 2003/2004. (2002/2003 figures in brackets)
1. Portsmouth: 146 (48)
2. Leeds United: 109 (79)
3. Manchester United: 108 (111)
4. Cardiff City: 107 (99)
5. Sunderland: 93 (157)
6. Hull City 90 (10)
7. Plymouth Argyle: 78 (85)
8. Tottenham Hotspur: 77 (71)
9. Nottingham Forest: 73 (114)
=10. Manchester City: 70 (91)
=10 Aston Villa : 70 (84)