POLICE in the region have launched a crackdown on football-related offences to weed out potential troublemakers before this summer's World Cup.

The initiative, which has been cautiously welcomed by supporters groups, emerged after four North-East supporters were arrested for drugs and alcohol offences at the weekend.

Police swooped on two privately-hired minibuses carrying fans to Darlington's match at Rochdale shortly after 9am on Saturday.

One was pulled over near the Quakers' former ground at Feethams and the other near the town's rugby club in Grange Road.

A small amount of cocaine and a quantity of lager was recovered after a search by several officers with dogs.

Four men were arrested on suspicion of possessing cocaine for personal use and also for drinking while travelling to a sporting event.

Detective Sergeant Ian Robinson, of Darlington police, said: "We'd had information that they would be carrying drugs and alcohol, so we intercepted them before they left the force area.

The four men arrested are from the Darlington area and are aged from the late teens to the forties.

They were travelling to Manchester and had told the bus company they were going there for a night out.

But once in Manchester, their real intention was to travel by local transport to the Rochdale game.

Det Sgt Robinson said the bus company was not aware of the fans' plans and was not to blame.

Once the police became involved, the drivers refused to take the remaining fans to Manchester.

Det Sgt Robinson said the arrests were part of a larger operation to crack down on football offences in preparation for the World Cup in Germany.

Anybody found guilty of football-related criminal offences could receive a court-imposed football banning order, which can prevent overseas travel during international matches and tournaments.

He said: "In the build-up to the World Cup, this is potentially one of many small operations as a result of intelligence to prevent football-related offences.

"Basically, it's an increase in police activity to make people aware that we won't tolerate offences and prevent hooligans going out to Germany."

A football-related offence can be any criminal offence connected with football, committed 24 hours either side of a match. A football banning order can be imposed if a court is satisfied it will prevent any further football-related violence or disorder.

Banning orders can require the subject to attend a police station and surrender their passport during a period of time while matches or tournaments are taking place.

Malcolm Clarke, chairman of the Football Supporters Federation, said: "Obviously we welcome any crackdown on people who are genuine football hooligans and are likely to cause trouble at domestic games or at the World Cup.

"The problem we have is that sometimes this exuberance can stretch over into what some football fans feel is unnecessary victimisation. It's important that police preserve a balance."

Steve Duffy, of Darlington FC Supporters Trust, welcomed the crackdown, but also called for police to exercise caution.

He said: "Anything that minimises trouble is a good thing as long as it's not preventing or restricting normal, law-abiding fans.

"Ninety-nine per cent of fans going to games are law abiding and anyone going to games are all aware of the rules that exist and the laws, that are quite strict laws, that are in place."

* The four arrested men were later released on police bail, pending further inquiries.