London (AFP) – Football supporters arriving at Wembley on Saturday for the FA Cup final between Arsenal and Chelsea were greeted by the sight of armed police days after a terror attack in Manchester.
Robust security measures were in place at major sporting events across the United Kingdom following Monday’s suicide bomb attack after a pop concert killed 22 people and wounded dozens.
Black-clad police officers carrying large guns could be seen outside Wembley Park underground station in northwest London, while black armoured police trucks were parked discreetly beside the roads leading to the stadium.
“It is reassuring,” said Arsenal fan Matthew Newman, 49, who was walking down Wembley Way hand-in-hand with his 10-year-old son, Harry, beneath bright sunshine.
“For the first time ever, I was a little bit nervous about attending an event with my son. I did have second thoughts. But in the end, I though, ‘No, we’re going to go.'”
The terror alert in Britain has been downgraded from its highest level of ‘critical’, meaning an attack is believed to be imminent, to ‘severe’.
Chelsea have cancelled a parade scheduled to take place in London on Sunday to celebrate their Premier League title win, saying they thought it was “inappropriate to go ahead” following the attack.
Arsenal have also said they will not hold a victory parade if they win at Wembley.
A minute’s silence was due to be held before the game, with players from both teams wearing black armbands.
– ‘On edge’ –
At Twickenham, scene of the English Premiership rugby final between Wasps and Exeter, armed police officers patrolled a closed-off road leading to the stadium from a local train station.
Despite searches taking longer than usual, supporters in the 82,500-strong crowd were grateful for the extra security measures.
“If it takes a little longer to get into the ground, then so be it,” Gerald Duckworth, a Wasps fan from nearby Windsor, told AFP.
“It’s about making sure the whole day goes by without any problems. I’m here with my family and it is very reassuring to see so many policemen and women protecting us and making sure nothing happens.
“Everyone has been on edge since the events of Monday night in Manchester and naturally it’s been one of the main talking points on the train.”
It was the same story at Hampden Park in Glasgow, Scotland, which was staging the Scottish Cup final between Aberdeen and local giants Celtic.
A line of police and stewards on the street outside Hampden checked spectators for tickets and carried out bag searches.
Once past the cordon, fans found armed police patrolling the car park located outside the entrance of the main stand.
Celtic fan Peter Carragher had brought his sons Patrick, 17, and eight-year-old Eoin over from Kildare, Ireland for their first match at Hampden.
“In light of what happened this week, it has to be done,” he told AFP on the steps of the main stand.
“Everyone seems quite relaxed when you look around. We’ve travelled over from Ireland, but we didn’t have to change our plans.”
– ‘Open jacket policy’ –
Mark Rowley, Britain’s top counter-terrorism police officer, asked people attending sporting events to be vigilant.
“Our operations will include a range of highly visible but also covert and discreet tactics and this will run far beyond the final whistle and away from specific stadia,” he said.
“I would ask people to be our eyes and ears — if you see something suspicious, tell a police officer or member of security staff.”
There was also an armed police presence at Saturday’s one-day cricket international between England and South Africa in Southampton on the southern English coast.
English rugby club Northampton, who hosted French side Stade Francais in a European Championship play-off match on Friday, implemented an ‘open jacket policy’ obliging fans to unzip their coats before being granted entry.
Fans travelling to Cardiff for the Champions League final next Saturday have been assured by European governing body UEFA that fan zones will be open.
“Contrary to what has been said in some media outlets, the ‘fan zones’ and festival will take place as planned under strict security measures,” UEFA said.
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