16 September ~ Manchester City visit Wigan on Sunday afternoon. In the same fixture last season away fan Steve Parish had a bad experience, made worse by the authorities' reaction
Is it racist to chant "His dad washes elephants" at an African footballer? And if you were at a match and complained to the stewards and the police that it was racist, would you expect to get thrown out? The Crown Prosecution Service isn't sure they'd get a conviction because "it doesn't mention a particular race or culture" – but then neither does making monkey noises. And a 60-year-old vicar got thrown out of Wigan's DW Stadium last season, after he complained about the chants and that his complaint about the alleged criminal offence was not being taken seriously. When he refused to go back to his seat and asked to speak to a senior police officer, he was ejected from the ground. I know – I was that vicar.
The best moment was when they asked for my full name and I said "The Reverend...". They still pushed me out (literally pushed). By that stage, I'd made a conscious decision that if I did get thrown out, I'd really start making a fuss. I'm co-ordinator of the fans committee for Man City (whose player was being abused) so I emailed the club and got their support in seeking redress. Three weeks later the secretary of Wigan Athletic replied to say that the club "safety officer" had upheld the stewards' action. The Football Licensing Authority suggested that if I couldn't resolve it with the club – I wanted an apology and my ticket money back – I could go to the Independent Football Ombudsman (IFO). But first I had to exhaust the process by going to the Premier League.
Meanwhile, Greater Manchester Police investigated my objection that they had not taken action on a complaint about a racist offence. The two officers I spoke to at the game said later that they could just hear "a wall of noise"; this was barely credible as I'd told them what was being sung. I was going to let the complaint to the police rest there, but the safety officer's reply said that the police stated that the songs being sung were offensive but not racist. If they couldn't hear the words, how could they make that judgement?
A long letter went back to Wigan. "I'm a bit concerned by the implication that neither police nor stewards (nor the safety officer) wanted to stop the offensive chanting." The police officers had asked if I expected them to arrest everyone who was singing it. No, I said, just one. The Football Offences Act has been amended so that one person chanting alone is committing an offence, but it's odd that the police should then decline to act because a lot of people are committing the crime.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this is that the stewards had been wearing "Kick It Out" anti-racism badges and the programme had a big spread about it – asking fans to report racist abuse. The Kick It Out campaign told me that the chanting was unacceptable and "we are working with both the football authorities and the clubs, looking at ways of how we eradicate it". Getting the clubs not to throw out spectators who complain about it would be a start.
As the Premier League got bogged down in whether the chant was racist or not, I eventually took it to the IFO, who interviewed the steward, who said I'd been warned and that I was told I was being ejected for "unreasonable behaviour" – not obeying a steward is an offence under the ground regulations. I say no warning or reason was ever given.
As the Ombudsman put it: "In the face of accounts which conflict in some aspects, it is not possible for the IFO to determine precisely what took place in the events leading up to the complainant's ejection, in particular what was said by way of warnings, or reasons for the ejection." They interviewed the steward but not me – a trial with just one side giving evidence. There was nothing about the police supposedly deciding at the time that the chant was not racist, but not communicating that to me or even the stewards (if they'd let me speak again to the police, I could have heard that for myself – if it was ever said). And he concluded: "However much sympathy the IFO might feel for the complainant, it is not possible to say that Wigan were not entitled to take the action which they did."
I certainly broke the ground regulations by not obeying a steward, but he refused my reasonable request to speak to a senior police officer about an alleged criminal offence – so where was the fairness, or an equitable solution? If they'd just given me my money back and a half-hearted apology I'd have been satisfied. My only consolation is that I gave them a lot of grief and put a lot of people to a great deal of trouble, when that apology would have sufficed.