Fans should be tenacious on crowd safety planning

Spurs taken on Newcastle2

Martin Cloake (@MartinCloake) of the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust (THST) tells us why the fans’ voice cannot be ignored by clubs, police and football authorities when planning crowd management...

I could not get my arm out from my side… My feet left the floor for a brief moment (I am 15 stone). I am lucky to be fit and middle aged.

This was the most threatened and scared I have felt. I also found the actions of both the stewards and the police to be of very little benefit apart from threatening fellow fans when they complained of being crushed. One of the police officers, unfortunately I didn't get her name or number, shrugged her shoulders and said ‘it’s the football club managing it’.

There were a number of police officers on horses backing towards us which was forcing people toward the walls around the turnstile. No organisation from the stewards who were also pushing people from all angles into a bottleneck.

The presence of police officers on horseback also contributed to the feeling of tension outside the stadium. They are intimidating and I associate their presence with hooligan management and crowd trouble which absolutely was not the case as the supporters were waiting patiently.

Those comments are just some of those we received at the THST after fans of Newcastle United experienced serious problems getting into White Hart Lane before last December’s League Cup quarter-final.

After working alongside FSF chief executive Kevin Miles and caseworker Amanda Jacks, we think we’ve secured some real and lasting improvements in the process of crowd management outside the away sections at White Hart Lane, and we wanted to share our experiences both to show what is possible if clubs and fans work together, and also to give fans everywhere the confidence to challenge and work to improve the treatment too many of us still experience too often when we go to the match.

In the aftermath of the game we requested a meeting with the club and compiled a dossier of Newcastle fans’ experiences. We also drew on the invaluable expertise of Amanda, who has extensive experience in dealing with incidents such as this. She helped us compile a list of suggested improvements to the system at Spurs, and the FSF's diplomatic skills helped ensure that not only did we secure a meeting with THFC, but that all parties approached that meeting constructively.

It has to be said that, in circumstances such as these, football clubs tend to be quite defensive in response to any criticism.

THST has a relatively well-developed relationship with Spurs after making this area of our work a priority over the past 12 months, and it helped that we could show an appreciation of why the club might be defensive while also making it clear that improvements were essential.

It’s particularly significant that the club, in its statement, issued an apology to those fans who experienced problems. Too often, clubs seem almost allergic to the concept of admitting fault or issuing apologies. This may be because of a fear of opening themselves up to legal challenge, but in our experience most fans have neither the inclination nor the funds to mount legal actions. They just want the issues they raise to be acknowledged, and to be confident that proper action will be taken to ensure fans don’t experience similar problems in the future.

Again, we’re lucky at Spurs to have Sue Tilling as our Safety Officer. Sue’s background is as a health and safety professional and, while we’ve had our differences, we’ve found her approach generally much more constructive and useful than other fans have experienced at other clubs. One of the issues we believe needs to be looked at across the game is the prevalence of retired police officers in the role of stadium safety officer. We’re not suggesting that retired professionals do not have a contribution to make, but we think a role as important as Stadium Safety should be fully professional.

There’s also a cultural question here, as many retired police officers come from both a culture and era in which football fans are seen primarily as a problem to be dealt with, not as law abiding people and families who have paid to attend a sporting event.

We’ve seen some appalling responses to legitimate fan complaints, a personal favourite being the one that essentially said ‘there were no problems but if they were they were caused by your supporters’.

And there’s also an element of complacency from the FA, whose crowd control advisers attend matches, and local authorities, with too many still all too willing to believe either that because no one has pointed out a problem before there have never been any problems, or that any problems that do occur are solely down to the fans.  The prevailing attitude across the industry appears, still, to be one of introspection and defensiveness.  

The only way we will change this culture is by becoming better informed, and becoming more confident about approaching the football authorities and raising issues while being prepared to be tenacious. Fan groups should seek information about and input to the Safety Advisory Groups that meet to plan events but which rarely include fans. And we need to constantly remind ourselves that we don’t have to start any discussion about how fans are treated from the basis of explaining why we are not all hooligans. Most of all, we need to establish the principle that planning how to deal with fans without involving fans is flawed planning; at best it is an irony that the voice of the largest ‘stakeholder’ in the game is predominantly a silent one in this context.

Finally, some of you might be wondering why THST was representing Newcastle United fans. We view what we did as representing football fans, not just those of one club. We want all fans of other clubs to be treated as we would expect to be treated, and so it’s in all our interests to make sure that incidents such as the one that affected fans of The Toon when they came to White Hart Lane are learned from.

Last season, fan groups at Everton and Liverpool worked to improve procedures after serious crushing occurred outside the Merseyside derby. Police on Merseyside now acknowledge the value of supporter input in securing those improvements.

We can now add the improvements we worked to secure at Spurs to the list of examples of good practice we use. Those cases will be particularly useful, for example, as we continue to seek a satisfactory conclusion to some serious crowd management incidents experienced by Spurs fans attempting to enter Stamford Bridge for the Premier League game in December, and we’re grateful to the Chelsea Supporters Trust for their help on this issue.

We’ve also had indications from contacts within the game that there is concern over the uneven approach to these issues that is often on display, and we would hope the game’s much-maligned governing bodies see a potent opportunity to demonstrate what they are capable of by working with supporter groups for improvements in this most vital area. 

The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed are those of the author and they don't necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn't be attributed to the FSF.

Thanks to Action Images for the image used in this blog.