If you were in the stands, watching Carlisle United battling Bradford City on that unforgettable play-off day, you may not have noticed what was rumbling beneath.

Indeed, not even the police saw it initially: a posse of Bradford fans having found their way into the home section of East Stand concourse, the gates separating away and home sections having been forced open.

The scramble to deal with this potentially toxic situation is captured on the Channel 4 series Football Cops, one episode of which focuses on the tension of Brunton Park on May 20, 2023.

The footage shows officers racing to break up confrontations between rival fans. “You’ve got to get through that melee like a raging bull,” says Rickie Wallbank, the Barrow AFC police liaison officer who was working at the game that day.

Another policeman tells the programme about the moment officers have to switch between the “engagement” side of the job to enforcement. Cue more footage of the effort to get the segregation gate back closed amid raised voices and jostling bodies, some shirtless.

“It’s the biggest game for each club in years, and they’re not wanting to watch it – they’re in the concourse wanting to knock ten bells out of each other,” viewers are told. “It’s mad. I have no idea why they do it.”

All this and more was playing out while United were defeating the Bantams 3-1 after extra-time to progress to Wembley. The early-afternoon occasion was one of the most boisterous Brunton Park has seen in years.

Behind the fun and the passion lay a policing operation both outside and inside the ground. After the dramatic intro music and narration, featuring footage of a policeman nodding a blue balloon on Warwick Road, we are shown fans making their way to respective pubs on Botchergate, and the police officers’ briefing ahead of the game.

They are told of issues in west Yorkshire at the first leg. “Beer bottles and pint glasses thrown, and some fighting between fans,” the cops are told. “Our job today is about medium and high-risk fans – about excluding them from ruining it for everybody else.

“There are a lot of football fans in this room…we’re here to make sure those can come and enjoy the game, and to deal with the minority who are here to ruin that.” We are then introduced to United’s dedicated football officer, Jonny Sunley – a “huge Carlisle fan” who played at Warwick Wanderers from ten, fell in love with the game and now has his “dream job”.

Viewers are shown social media footage of fireworks being let off outside Bradford’s team hotel. “As far as a tactic goes, it’s banter. In keeping with the spirit of game…probably not, no,” says Jonny.

Police are shown at Carlisle station greeting some arriving Bradford fans, and working to spot any troublemakers. We are told of “growing tension” between the respective sets of supporters, and officers attending the respective pubs, as visiting fans sing charming ditties such as “Bradford’s a ******** but it’s better than this,” and, “City of Culture, you’ll never sing that...”

Rickie says fans are more likely to listen to and respect police if previous interactions are positive. There is duly footage of the officers chatting and joshing with fans. As the Bradford contingent are later escorted down Warwick Road, an amber pyro goes off before being abandoned by the pavement. “He’s been warned a couple of times,” says an officer about one particular individual.

As fans arrive at the stadium, there is some scuffling. A Bradford fan earlier seen behaving “disorderly” grabs sunglasses off the head of a Blues supporter, then resists arrest. As he is restrained and handcuffed, cocaine is found on his person.

“Drug misuse within football has become a massive issue,” viewers are told – cocaine primarily. “It makes our job harder. People are harder to engage with when they’re using drugs.”

Once the game is under way, tensions rise higher as police focus on ensuring rivals fans do not reach each other. In another section of the show, covering the Stockport County-Salford City semi-final, an officer notes that there appears a greater willingness among some fans to confront stewards and police than there had been before the Covid-19 lockdowns.

The game at Brunton Park goes to extra-time as a police briefing shows a discussion about the inevitability of a pitch invasion, particularly if Carlisle win. Officers’ job is not to “grab or run after anybody”, but to support stewards by keeping sets of fans apart, and to stop things escalating to disorder.

By the end of the game, police are wearing riot gear ahead of this particular task. Before then, officers head into the Paddock looking for a Carlisle fan who had already run onto the pitch. The supporter, nicknamed ‘Whizzer’, is duly apprehended, and goes peacefully, albeit with plenty of discussion.

Owen Moxon crosses and Ben Barclay heads the decisive goal for Carlisle...but police are engaged with ‘Whizzer’ outside the ground. “We’re going to Wembley,” Johnny says, then turns to the arrested fan. “You’re not.”

We see police between East Stand and Waterworks End expressing concern about the proximity of some fans, and the need for back-up. The earlier concourse battle is fresh in the mind.

As the final whistle goes, United fans pour onto the pitch. The vast majority do so in sheer joy, but a group immediately goad the Bradford section. An isolated number of idiots throw coins and bottles, and a Bradford fan is struck.

“One male was identified, arrested and went to court for that matter,” Johnny tells the programme, after scenes of smoke and celebration are seen in front of United’s dugouts.

The fall-out is summarised as the programme comes to a close. The supporter with Class A drugs was fined £450. One man was identified and charged with throwing a missile. ‘Whizzer’, meanwhile, was charged with pitch encroachment, having seen more of the police, in the end, than Carlisle’s moment of play-off jubilation.

“I got arrested for it, ended up getting a £505 fine and three-year ban,” he tells the camera. He is asked if he would do it again. “Hopefully not…[but] I’ve hurt no-one. Up the Blues.”

The episode of Football Cops featuring the Carlisle United v Bradford City game can be watched HERE