Walsall's freedom of speech problem
19 May ~ What kind of person is forcibly ejected from a football ground? Well, me actually. On the last Saturday of the season, during the second half of Walsall's game against MK Dons, I was frogmarched out of the Banks's stadium by five stewards as the police looked on. And the reason for this rather dramatic course of action? Ten minutes earlier, during half-time, I had hung a banner from the upper tier of the stand. You can see its controversial message here.
The banner was inspired by the cases of three other Walsall fans who have been banned from the stadium by the club in recent weeks for offences ranging from writing for an unofficial supporters' website to, er, calling a local radio station's football phone-in. Events began on Easter Monday, when a 2-1 win against Wycombe was briefly enlivened by the unfurling of a Cypriot flag bearing the legend "Pension Fund FC".
This was a pointed reference to Saddlers owner Jeff Bonser who, as landlord of the Banks's Stadium, collects almost £400,000 a year in rent from the League One club. This income is allegedly paid directly into his pension to fund a retirement that may be spent at his Cypriot villa – hence the flag. This was hardly an organised protest, more a satirical stunt aimed at injecting a modicum of barbed humour into a largely tedious season. Stewards immediately told the group to put the flag down, which they did. Some good-natured chanting followed but few in the ground could have predicted the response that followed.
Walsall's chief executive Roy Whalley began with an extraordinary attack in the local evening newspaper. This was followed by a wave of bans. The main reason for these individuals being picked out seems to be that each is known personally to the club, making them easy to target – two weren't even involved in the original incident. At the next home game, fans were careful not to display anything containing an inflammatory message but the club's determination to extinguish any dissent led to the bizarre sight of stewards attempting to confiscate half a dozen plain Cypriot flags.
It's important to note that there are more than a few fans willing to stick up for a chairman who, some argue, saved the club from extinction during the early 1990s. But in overreacting to such an extent, Bonser and Whalley have managed to unite almost every supporter in condemnation of their actions. A stunt designed to draw attention to various obscure financial issues had suddenly become a much more easily defined protest about free speech.
Which is how I found myself watching the game on Saturday with an eight metre long banner hidden under my coat. The plan was to put it up briefly, making my point before removing it when requested to do so by stewards – but I didn't get the chance, a steward pushed me out of the way as I attempted to secure the banner, before ripping it down without saying a word. To prevent this reading like a police logbook, all you really need to know after this is that I was forcibly ejected from the ground for the heinous offence of "obstructing paid advertising". I've received no communication from the club since but fully expect to be added to the list of fans banned from the Banks's Stadium for spurious reasons in due course.
All this would be embarrassing enough for Walsall without the whiff of rank hypocrisy that accompanies Roy Whalley's involvement. A former schoolteacher who first came to prominence in the 1980s as a vociferous opponent of the club's attempts to groundshare with Wolves and Birmingham City, Whalley's own protest campaign was so successful that Walsall owner Ken Wheldon was ousted and replaced by Terry Ramsden. Shortly afterwards, Whalley became club secretary. This poacher turned gamekeeper now fights supporters as enthusiastically as he once led them. But in taking potshots at a few kids scrumping apples he has only succeeded in spectacularly shooting himself in the foot.
With the Football Supporters' Federation taking a keen interest in the case it is hoped that the club can be persuaded to rethink the bans. But if they don't, this could become a hugely important watershed for football fans' freedom of speech. Tom Lines
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