It may not be in the public eye, but Tim Springett believes that away supporters are treated badly by the powers that be

The experiences of Manchester United supporters in Portugal recently were probably the most shocking and extreme examples of a phenomenon which remains unacceptably widespread in football even at home; the view, held by clubs, the police and the FA, of visiting team supporters as second-class citizens.

Somehow I find myself remarking on this virtually every time I go to watch my team play away. The latest occasion was at what is supposedly one of our modern Premiership grounds.

We bought our £20 tickets for the visitors’ enclosure through our own club’s box office. The match was a 7.45 pm kick-off and we arrived in the stadium in time for the start. However, when we went to our seats, we found them already occupied. On enquiry it turned out that the only reason the occupants were there was because their seats had also been taken.

So we found some free seats in which to sit. However the sight lines in the visitors‚ enclosure were so dreadful we found ourselves having to stand in order to see the match. This was the cue for a small number of ineffectual stewards to ask the spectators to sit down, only to be routinely ignored.

Soon a group of latecomers arrived and we had to relinquish our seats to them. So we stood in the gangway. Against the rules I know, but we had come to watch the match. Every so often a steward would tell us to go back to our seats. When we pointed out that our seats were occupied, we were told “there are some free seats at the back”. Fine if you wanted a close-up view of the underside of the upper tier of the stand but hopeless if you wanted to see the game. And of course, everyone was standing up.

“We’ll sort you out at half-time‚ said the stewards. They didn’t. So back we went to the gangway. Finally, at five past nine, our seats were made available to us – one hour and twenty minutes after the game started.

It serves to illustrate that, even as we approach the 21st century, the treatment of visiting supporters at football matches remains firmly in the dark ages. Allocated the worst sections of grounds, rarely if ever permitted to benefit from ticket price concessions, shabbily treated by police and stewards, threatened with expulsion from grounds if they happen to enter sections preserved exclusively for ‘home’ supporters, visitors are at best merely tolerated and clearly not welcomed.

No doubt anyone reading this will be able to cite similar or worse experiences of their own. If a grievance is raised with the host club the best you are likely to get is a letter back saying “yes, very sorry, hope it didn’t spoil your day”. No chance of a money-off voucher for future games or anything like that. The common view seems to be “our fans are poorly served when they go to other grounds”. There is no pressure to improve things which clubs can be forced to take seriously.

If the political will existed to compel clubs not to discriminate in their treatment of away fans, it would be fairly easy to put appropriate measures into practice. Section 10 (5) of the Football Spectators Act 1989 permits the Football Licensing Authority to grant licences to clubs to admit spectators on such terms as the Authority thinks fit.

That means the FLA has practically unlimited power to decide on the conditions it attaches to any licence it grants. However it must take into consideration any factors which the Secretary of State for the Environment may from time to time determine. So no new legislation would be required. It could be done at the drop of a hat.

There are some clubs who, commendably, do extend discounting of ticket prices to young and elderly visiting supporters. Some have a visitors enclosure with seats from which it is actually possible to watch the game. Rumours also exist of a ground where the stewards and police are responsive and courteous to visiting fans, although I’m probably thinking of Utopia FC. But it is not too much to ask.

All clubs should make proper provision for away fans. If they don’t, they will, ultimately be making problems for themselves; all that will happen is that visitors will attempt to gain access to home supporters’ facilities, driving out home fans.

This is an issue for all supporters. Ask your new MP what plans they have to tackle it.

From WSC 124 June 1997. What was happening this month

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