Blame game

Chris Lines on Fulham’s scapegoating of fans after a ticketing shambles

Fast becoming football’s answer to the Harlem Globetrotters, September saw the Brazilian national team in London for an enticing friendly with Ghana at Fulham’s Craven Cottage. But for many supporters the occasion was marred by events outside the stadium.

Hundreds of fans crowded around two small booths on Stevenage Road where staff were handing out pre-booked tickets in envelopes. The absence of any queueing system meant the modest number of stewards were unable to manage such a large crowd. Such was the congestion that those caught in the crush were at times incapable of moving.

Sarah Quilliam was one of those trapped: “I was rammed up against someone’s back and had another person pressed up against me from behind. I couldn’t move my arms. At times my feet weren’t touching the ground. My body was being crushed and my breathing was constricted. It wasn’t like a mosh pit where the crowd moves with you, it was like leaning against a brick wall.”

On the morning of the game the BBC reported that 5,000 tickets were still available. This would have ensured substantial late bookings. Far more people would be collecting tickets on the night than at a regular league game, when most fans have tickets in advance. Fulham would have known this, yet just 11,000 people were in the ground at kick-off, with eyewitnesses reporting confusion among stewards and a lack of police on the scene.

Ivan Rebouças was among the Brazilian support. He suggests a lack of cultural sensitivity played a part: “Fulham seemed unaware that this was a major international fixture between two large expat communities in London. Or that we Brazilians always arrive just in time and expect things to run smoothly. That’s why it was dynamite.”

With the game some 25 minutes old, and many starting to give up and go home, officials relented and began allowing fans to enter just by showing a confirmation email. Yet even this message took several minutes to be communicated to turnstile operators. Some fans were still entering as half-time approached.

In the aftermath of the game Fulham blamed supporters for the congestion, claiming fans had “refused to go into the ground on time”, preferring to party in the streets. The club pointed to the flow rate of people entering the ground 15 minutes before kick-off: 266 per minute, compared to 500-600 for a Premier League game. However, the turnstiles were not crowded even as the game kicked off, while a mass of people waiting to collect tickets remained around the booths.

The club’s stance infuriated fans. Those who might otherwise have put it down to experience were furious at being blamed for the disorganisation. Amanda Jacks, a caseworker at the Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF), collected dozens of eyewitness accounts, which she used to compile a dossier to send to Fulham chief executive Alistair Mackintosh, Hammersmith and Fulham Police, the local authority, the Football Licensing Authority and the Premier League were all copied in.

She told them fans were not seeking a “witch hunt”, just a public apology for the club’s comments and the opportunity to be involved in analysis of events. Swiss-based promoter Kentaro, best known domestically for their close ties with Blackburn Rovers owners Venky’s, and who organise Brazil’s Gillette-sponsored world tour, should perhaps also shoulder some responsibility.

Why Fulham chose to blame the fans is unclear. Were they worried about potential legal action or simply a flurry of refund requests? After initially offering complainants free tickets to future Fulham games, the FSF report that the club have started to offer refunds. But the biggest worry for most fans is a repeat crush in future – some have sworn never to return to Craven Cottage. With so much criticism it will be a surprise if the club are awarded another one-off international event of this nature.

For Stephen Cottrell, a Liverpool fan in attendance, the experience was saddening: “To see a club deliberately and deceitfully blame a crush on fans has a particular resonance for Liverpool supporters. It’s depressing that in 2011 an incompetent organisation still feels able to lay the blame for its shortcomings at the door of ordinary football fans who pay through the nose for the privilege of being treated like cattle.”

While local authorities have informed Jacks that they’ve launched their own full investigation into the crush, at the time of writing the FSF had yet to receive any acknowledgement of the dossier from Fulham. “It’s been a deafening silence,” says Jacks. “We’re not going to let it rest though.”

From WSC 297 November 2011