A FAR right-wing group is attempting to recruit Saints fans to its ranks, a Daily Echo investigation has uncovered.

The English Defence League (EDL) last month launched a recruitment drive in Southampton to enlist football fans to march against “Islamic extremism”.

The league, whose demonstrations in London, Luton and Birmingham led to violence, has infiltrated supporter’s online forums and the terraces of St Mary’s Stadium.

Concerned Saints bosses have condemned the group and brought it to the attention of Hampshire police, Southampton City Council, Hampshire FA and football’s antiracism campaign Kick it Out.

Southampton Itchen MP John Denham, who is in charge of promoting inter-faith harmony for the Government, last night branded the group “troublemakers” and said he was confident most fans would have nothing to do with them.

The Echo can reveal Saints this week ordered Facebook to remove the club’s crest from an EDL campaign group founded on the social networking website.

By yesterday 175 people had signed up to the “Southampton FC branch of the EDL”, which claims it wants to peacefully protest against “militant Islam within our shores”.

Desperate to disassociate itself from the fringe group, Saints were last night seeking legal advice to have the name Southampton FC removed from the website page.

A Saints spokesman said: “Southampton Football Club wholeheartedly condemns this type of racist activity. We were made aware of this group, and immediately took the relevant steps to ensure that any implied affiliation was eradicated.

“Further to this, we have notified members of the club’s Racism Just Ain’t Saintly committee of our concerns, and asked that these are passed on to the Premier League and Football League to make other clubs aware of these activities.

“This is something the club will be monitoring in the future as it clearly conflicts with our principles of a united, cohesive and integrated community.”

The right-wing radicals, whose emblem is a St George’s Cross emblazoned on a shield, hit the headlines in recent months after they fought running battles with anti-fascists protesters.

Saints fans were first invited to join the newly formed group on September 17 by a local organiser who goes by the online name of “Bigtonsfc”.

In a posting on the supporter’s website saintsweb.co.uk he said they were a “fast expanding”

group who “have had enough of Muslim extremists being allowed to shout about murdering British people and ruining our soldiers’ homecomings”.

It sparked an online debate about the pros and cons of the league that has continued for the past two weeks, however most fans appeared to dismiss the approach.

On the EDL’s own website, members have discussed the desire to organise a demonstration in Southampton. One poster also said a “few Southampton lads” were going to march in a protest planned for Manchester next Saturday.

A spokesman for United Against Fascists, (UAF) which has clashed violently with the EDL over the past two months, described the league as a “threat” and said news that Southampton FC was being targeted was a “very worrying development”.

“They claim they are not racist, but all of the evidence points in the opposite direction.

There is no doubt that these are a group of hooligans who have decided they are going to go round multiracial areas to stir up trouble and attack Muslims,”

the spokesman said.

“The very worst thing we can do is just ignore them or pretend they are not happening and hope they go away. If we do that you can guarantee they will grow and become more violent.”

The UAF believes the group is systematically attempting to infiltrate football clubs across Britain.

The spokesman added: “They are old school football hooligans who are trying to recruit a new generation.

My message to Southampton football fans is that you are being used and these people are out to blacken your name.”

A Hampshire Constabulary spokesman said officers were aware of the situation and were continuing to monitor it.

The St Mary’s Stadium Monitoring Group has been put on alert for any racist chanting or signs that the EDL was recruiting on the club’s ground.

The club is also planning various events at the MK Dons match on October 24 to mark Black History Month and the public week of action to “Kick Racism Out Of Football”.

Racism Just Ain’t Saintly, a joint initiative between Saints, Southampton City Council and Hampshire FA, was set up in 2002.

The body’s chairman Don John said the EDL was the first organisation he had seen attempt to infiltrate the club.

“I’d like to think the many years that we have been involved in Racism Just Ain’t Saintly will be quite a strong defence to any attempts by people to use the club to deliver their racist views,” Mr John said.

Saints Trust chairman Nick Illingsworth confirmed a small number of supporters had pledged support for the league, but said Southampton FC did not have, and never has had, a racism problem.

While he personally doesn’t agree with the EDL’s agenda, he said their members should not be shouted down.

“The English Defence League will be seen for what they stand for through freedom of speech and I am quite confident that they will be seen through by most people,” Mr Illingsworth said.

Mr Denham has previously compared the league with Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, better known as the Black Shirts, which rose to prominence in the 1930s. However, the Communities secretary yesterday said the EDL was still small in numbers and insisted they posed a far lesser threat.

“The English Defence League is a small group of people who have tried to provoke trouble by the way they have organised demonstrations,” he said.

“No one is saying there shouldn’t be proper discussion about Britain as a society, but there is no basis for going out to cause trouble.”

Mr Denham added: “As a long-standing Saints fan it has always been a club which has been refreshingly free of the bigotry of prejudice that we used to see at football. I am absolutely certain the vast majority of fans will make sure it stays that way.”

A major campaign to reach out to people who feel disaffected is to be launched by Mr Denham’s department later this month.

English Defence League

THE EDL denies that it is racist and describes itself as a multi-ethnic and multi-faith organisation.

In an email sent to league members on Thursday night, organiser Trevor Kelway, from Portsmouth, said the league wanted to protest peacefully against “radical Islam and Sharia law”.

The EDL was formed in March after a group of Muslim anti-war protestors held up placards at the homecoming of the 2nd Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment that read “Butchers of Basra” and “Anglican soldiers go to hell”.

As well as Southampton, the league has set up “divisions” in Luton, London, Bristol, Portsmouth, Derby, Cardiff and the West Midlands and has hundreds of active members.

Other football clubs to be targeted reportedly include Chelsea, QPR,Wolverhampton Wanderers, Aston Villa, Swansea and Cardiff.

EDL demonstrations are planned for Manchester, Swansea, Newport, Leeds, Glasgow and Nottingham over the next two months.

The league also sells personalised caps, polo shirts and hooded jumpers – that come complete with facemasks – on eBay.

A leaked British National Party membership list last year revealed there were 301 BNP members living in Hampshire, including 79 in Southampton, 12 in Eastleigh, 12 in Fareham, ten in Winchester and four in Lymington.

Lin Mozar, secretary for the South East branch of the BNP, said her party had no affiliation with the league. “We have nothing to do with them at all,”

she said.

Azad Majid, from the Muslim Council of Southampton, declined to comment on the league’s emergence.

Numerous attempts by the Daily Echo to contact national and local EDL organisers were unsuccessful.