SJ MASKELL: Leeds give Pompey fans a masterclass in lack of tact...
By SJ Maskell
Friday 07 Oct 2011 09:52:00
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New songs Fratton End? Try this one: ‘Thirty Six quid, We’ll do what we want!’ Sing ad nauseam. Follow with a brief chorus of, ‘You can stick your f***ing cameras up your a**e!’

This succinct summation of all that is driving fans away from football came from Pompey’s away support at Elland Road last Saturday. Leeds United, claiming to be reeling still from the sick chants exchanged between Leeds and Manchester United fans in their Carling Cup tie, decided to try out a new system for controlling the away fans on the 600 Fratton faithful who made the 500 mile round trip.

It went like this:

  1. Designate the match Category A. Leeds fans suspect this to be something to do with Ken Bates falling out with West Yorkshire Police. Personally I blame the legendary reputation of the 6.57 crew – but that’s another story. It resulted in a heavy police presence.
  2. Move the away support from the draughty South East Corner (Cat A prices: £31, £21 (seniors), £11 (children)) to the West Stand Upper (Prices: £36, £27, £25). West Stand Upper is notoriously difficult to sell to Leeds fans – I don’t think they like the view of the refurbished East Stand that seems to be draining money away from their team at the moment.
  3. Cage off a bit of the car park for away fans’ coaches and minibuses so they can channel fans straight into the ground.
  4. Police film all supporters getting off the coaches in this cordoned off area. Note: they were highly embarrassed to be filming a coach of Old Age Pensioners and did stop at that point. It has been suggested that nobody told them that WAS the 6.57 crew.
  5. Have five police officers especially designated to film and photograph the Pompey fans throughout the match. No doubt the shots they got of the families and toddlers on laps around me were charming. The old chaps nearby were beginning to get giddy with the fame.
  6. Designate your roughest, toughest and most threatening looking stewards to the area. Tell them they have to keep the fans seated. Don’t involve the police in this plan.
  7. See what happens when you eject as many fans as possible from the ground. They managed 24 I’m told.

We are used to being policed and marshalled in less than sympathetic ways. Fans at West Ham were asked to face a police camera and state their names and addresses before the match at Upton Park. (This is an abuse of police power and you don’t have to comply with such a request unless under arrest.) At Barnsley, large phalanxes of police and stewards directed us through a dark, potholed and muddy car park amongst moving traffic to ‘shield’ us from the ‘Barnsley ultras’. We joke about it and it becomes a story for the pub or the message board.

This was something else. For the first time in many years I felt intimidated by the way we were being ‘controlled’ by the Leeds set up. The cameras were obvious and intrusive and the stewards confrontational. Given the nature of football crowds it was inevitable that something would kick off.

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So it came to pass that the fans who were grumbling amongst themselves at Hull two weeks earlier, who spent more time insulting each other than the home fans, became a united body at Leeds. It started with a gentle wind up. The stewards asked people to sit down. They sat down. Once most were sitting someone would start with, ‘Stand up if you hate the scum!’ and many would feel obliged to stand up again. Stewards would then try to get everyone seated again. This went on for quite a while, interspersed with some reasonably interesting play in front of us (Leeds were attacking the goal we could see). 

In my opinion, if the stewards had left us to it at that point, particularly after Leeds scored, people may well have sat down out of sheer boredom at what was happing on the pitch. It didn’t help that we couldn’t see the goal that we were attacking very well, but then we weren’t getting very near it either, until the last ten minutes or so of the first half when Halford went close to scoring.

In the second half the chants of, ‘Thirty six quid, we’ll do what we want,’ became more apparent and were sustained for considerable periods. On the pitch we watched attacks break down, but at least the action was in front of us. It was during this period that the ejections started. I wasn’t close enough to see how they came about but have heard that at least one fan was accused of assault by the Leeds stewards, and that police filming actually proved that he had done no such thing. Fans have described one particular steward who they perceived as ‘looking for trouble’.  As at Cardiff, Pompey fans who attempted to calm other Pompey fans down were threatened with ejection themselves.  All the while, Leeds fans in the South Lower to our right were standing and chanting in the sun.

Leeds fans have told me since that the police were particularly unhappy with the way the stewards conducted themselves at the match. They weren’t the only ones. Complaints have been made and reports of events sent to the Football Supporters’ Federation. Police and football clubs know enough about the nature of football fans to manage them with more tact and success than the Leeds set up did. Simply comparing our fans’ behaviour at Hull and at Leeds tells you this trouble was unnecessary. The fans were largely the same people, the result the same, the play actually marginally less frustrating to watch -  the crowd management was the difference.

Football clubs are going to have to realise that they can’t have it both ways. If they want to charge high prices and treat fans as customers then they are going to have to deliver what the customer wants. Many of their customers want to sing and stand at matches. If clubs chose to see fans as customers then they cannot continue to treat them as criminals. This oppressive attitude towards fans, that they are guilty by association with football, has got to change.

Clubs can do much to mitigate problems by including fans in decisions about how to manage and organise their grounds. Hopefully CSI are showing signs of wanting to do this with their requests to fans for information on how to improve Fratton Park.

Two events at Pompey in the next fortnight will show them how things could change.

The first is the Safe Standing Roadshow on 13 October at the Pitchside Bar, Fratton Park, 5pm – 8pm, where new Safe Standing fittings for football grounds will be on display. (Safe Standing website here). Come and take a look, sign the petition for safe standing and support the Bill being presented to Parliament to reintroduce standing to all football grounds that want it. This set up works in Germany and allows fans who want to stand and support their team to do so safely – enhancing the atmosphere at matches.

The second is a Football Supporters’ Federation Event at the Rifle Club on 20 October starting at 7pm. (Details here). This is part of the FSF’s Campaign, ‘Watching Football is not a Crime.’ The FSF is working to prevent the abuse of power by both police and stewards. This question and answer session and information evening will make sure you know exactly what your rights are in situations like last Saturday at Leeds.

 
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