Ongoing away allocation problem at Emirates
4 March ~ After significant defeats to Liverpool, Stoke City and Bayern Munich in the Premier League and Champions League in recent weeks, Arsenal host Everton in the FA Cup sixth round on Saturday knowing that the old competition represents probably their best shot at ending that nine-year trophy drought. If the Cup does prove the saving of their season, supporters of their opponents en route to Wembley could be forgiven a rueful smile given Arsenal's failure to abide by the spirit of the competition in their ticket allocations for away fans.
For Saturday's tie against Everton, the visiting section will comprise just over 5,100 spectators – some way short of the 9,000 the visitors should be allowed according to the Cup's regulations. Exactly the same happened when Tottenham and Liverpool went to the Emirates in the third and fifth rounds respectively. The Tottenham Hotspur Supporters' Trust, Liverpool's Spirit of Shankly supporters' union and now Everton's Blue Union have each spoken out in turn and these fan groups were among the signatories of a letter sent last week to FA general secretary Alex Horne by Malcolm Clarke, chair of the Football Supporters' Federation (FSF).
Clarke cited the FA's own regulation 21(a) which states that "the Visiting Club shall have the right to claim up to 15 per cent of all accommodation for which tickets are issued providing these tickets are in a fully segregated area", and it ended: "We request that the FA take concrete steps to defend the rules of its own competition and ensure that such disregard for the rights of away supporters, who are so vital to the special atmosphere at FA Cup games, comes to an end." The decision to cut the allocation to less than nine per cent was taken by Arsenal's Safety Advisory Group – comprising representatives of the club, local authority, police and transport. The FSF website noted that "SAGs make decisions that matter to thousands, yet they do so behind closed doors with minimal input from fans".
It was the Spirit of Shankly who received, via a Freedom of Information request to Islington Council, some explanation for the Arsenal SAG's stance. The letter it received from the Council cited "significant risks with persistent standing" in the upper tier and gave the example of the League Cup tie against Chelsea in October. "Very few of the spectators on the upper tier sat," it said, adding that: "Attempts to throw missiles onto the Arsenal fans below were witnessed. A flare was let off in the lower tier and had this happened on the upper tier, this could have precipitated panic amongst the standing fans." The letter also mentioned the "steep rake" of the upper tier, which is not suitable for standing. Spirit of Shankly pointed out, though, that an exception was made for Coventry City – Arsenal's fourth-round opponents – who were offered an upper-tier allocation but declined.
Another voice added to the debate was that of the Everton-supporting Labour MP Andy Burnham, the former secretary of state for culture, media and sport. He wrote a letter to FA chairman Greg Dyke on February 25 in which he argued: "I fail to see how a club with years of experience handling big fixtures, in a purpose-built stadium, cannot devise a solution to meet the ticketing rules. It is also worth saying that any Safety Advisory Group will be more influenced by the views of one club. In situations like this surely there is a role for the FA to broker a more independent view, fair to both sets of supporters?"
Another fair point yet the FA's response to it all was a statement pointing out that while it could "appreciate the disappointment in the SAG not granting the full 15 per cent allocation, it is nearly double the amount of tickets that Everton would have received for the Premier League fixture at the Emirates back in December." Feeble stuff, and the immediate consequence will be another Cup tie lacking the intense atmosphere it should have had. Simon Hart