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According to the Football Association – the national governing body for the game in England – “there is one aspect of the English game that continues to set the standard and makes us the envy of the international football community”.
That aspect is stadium safety. Given the historic problems – and tragedies – associated with football stadia in England, this is both welcome and necessary. The FA has a whole website designed to ensure everyone understands what standards need to be met.
This is an admirable regulatory framework. Which makes what allegedly happened at the Lamex Stadium on Saturday all the more surprising.
Routine business you might think as Stevenage inflicted a 3-1 defeat on Grimsby Town. But what happened off the pitch seems to have been anything but run-of-the-mill. In an extra-ordinary letter, an independent and 3000-strong fan group, The Mariners’ Trust, claimed “the treatment of Grimsby supporters by your stewards was amongst the worst our fans have experienced in decades of travelling across the world to watch football.”
The list of concerns is potentially jaw-dropping really:
- Several female supporters were asked to lift their tops up to show their bras to female stewards upon entry – in the queue in front of other supporters, including men and male stewards.
- Female supporters were asked by female stewards if they could feel their bras if they confirmed that they were underwired.
- Full body searches being carried out by stewards on children as young as five years old.
- Items not on a “banned” list were seized by stewards upon including a tiny bottle of hand sanitiser (which is allowed by law onto an aeroplane), contact lens solution, cough sweets and medication.
- A female steward was posted inside male toilets near the away turnstiles, despite the fact several male stewards and police officers were stood outside.
- There were no washing facilities in the men’s toilets raising hygiene issues, no soap, drying facilities or hand sanitisers
- Stewards lined up in such a way as to block the view of supporters sitting in the first two rows. Fans who complained were told to move if they couldn’t see but this is contrary to the terms and conditions of sale (which very clearly state supporters must sit in the seat named on their ticket)
- Stewards tried to stop supporters taking photographs to enable them to make a complaint
- The actions of some stewards in interacting with supporters is described as “naive and inappropriate” and “lacking basic training to be put in the position they faced.”
Serious allegations indeed, raising issues of privacy, respect, profiling (not everyone was subject to the same searches) safeguarding of/for children, trading standards (so much for the promise of an “unrestricted view”), hygiene (and therefore public health), common sense and even human rights. And of course compliance with the aforementioned national standards
The Trust themselves have publicly posed six seemingly reasonable questions:
- Was there intelligence to suggest this was a high risk fixture?
- What was the risk assessment for this fixture?
- What is the searching policy at the ground under the terms of the safety certificate? What should be seized?
- What is the safeguarding policy bearing in mind minor persons were the subject of the search process?
- Is there any guidance/training in relation to the breach of human rights?
Stevenage FC has responded promptly to confirm, as you would hope/expect, that they are investigating. But the detail in the Trust’s letter and the availability of photographs to support their concerns makes for a weighty dossier.
Not just because of football’s history, world events mean that stadium safety is particularly important. And whilst many match day stewards are volunteers, that doesn’t by-pass the need for appropriate training and club-level responsibility – at all levels of our national game.
I find it hard to believe that any professional club would sanction such a marked departure from acceptable standards. I have a sneaking feeling (based on nothing more than my gut and 40 years of watching live football) that we will find the actions of a small number of inexperienced and possibly too lightly trained/supervised stewards will account for the issues in the Trust’s letter that can be made to stand up.
So whilst it’s a shame that the Mariners’ Trust felt the need to pose these questions, things clearly went wrong and so it was absolutely essential that they did. And Stevenage must be given the opportunity to put forward their view.
At the root of all this is the maxim that all that is needed, for bad, potentially dangerous practices to prevail, is for the rest of us to do nothing. We should be circumspect to apportion blame, but most willing to ask awkward questions.
This piece also appears in The Huffington Post