Low-level security

In the aftermath of the controversy over Neil MacNamara, Mark Rowe argues that new legislation will do little to improve club stewarding while the pay and training attached to the job is so poor

So what if Neil MacNamara, the minder of Sam Ham­­mam, turned out to be a convicted football hooligan? I would argue it would have made a better front page headline in the Sun if Sam’s minder had not had a criminal record – bearing in mind that one in four British men born in 1968 had a conviction by the age of 25, and every event security manager needs at least some staff who are not afraid to mix it.

UK sec­urity firms cannot afford to be too choosy. In stewarding, as in any other branch of the private sec­urity industry, staff turnover is high and attendance unreliable, making motivation low and training (with some exceptions) sketchy. The Private Security Industry Act 2001 will require licences for security officers, and maybe stewards too, but that is likely to lead only to more paperwork, time-consuming vetting of job can-didates and pressure to cut corners to get enough stew­ards, whatever their record, to staff all positions.

Ask yourself: who wants to be a steward? Mostly loan-paying students, or the characters working club doors on weekends or sitting in a factory gate­house on weekday nights. When any poorly paid sec­urity guy with limited training is faced with drink-fuelled vio­lence and threats, it’s easier for him to think with his fists than offer calming words and body lang­uage.

There is a gap in club stewarding and security stan­dards between Premiership clubs and Premiership hopefuls, and the rest who are so strapped for cash that security is a low priority. At Upton Park, CCTV cam­eras are linked to the London Borough of New­ham’s cameras, so the Hammers’ control room inside the stadium can view footage of fans nearing the ground. Newham has a pioneering facial recognition CCTV system and has trialled use of a police database of known trouble-makers’ faces to match those of people walking towards the ground. But this kind of system is way beyond the means of most smaller clubs.

The top event security firms have on their books not just football stadiums but top race meetings, pop concerts and so on. The first two companies to gain Football Authority accreditation under the Football Stewarding Qualification (FSQ) were Showsec (sam­ple clients: Leeds, Stereophonics at Donington) and Special Projects Security (sample clients: Manchester United, the Grand National). SPS business development man­ager Bob Cole, like other SPS bosses an ex-military man, explains that “a bit of chat” goes a long way in stewarding, as most fans will listen to reason. “If you make a reasonable request, expect a reasonable an­swer,” is his customer service motto.

SPS staff at Old Trafford carry out searches and patrols of car parks (ideal targets for thieves, who know the owners won’t be around at 4pm), and look after security at the Man Utd retail outlets. Stewards, then, may have a missing child to find one minute and a situation to defuse that could turn nasty the next. The mix of ideal qualities – cinema-like ushering and police-like peacekeeping – is difficult to find in one person, let alone among those willing to work for the kind of wages football offers. Watford, for example, pay stewards between £17 and £28 a game.

When Portsmouth engaged Showsec to bring their stewarding up to scratch, a flurry of resignations fol­lowed. The dress code, for example, did not impress one steward, who arrived for work in Bermuda shorts and flip flops. The old-time stewards who only turn up to watch the match may be rooted out, but even well-trained and well-motivated stewards cannot guarantee to deliver riot-free stadiums.

Like security guards in Job Centres, supermarkets and hospitals, unprotected stewards are regularly on the receiving end of aggression that would have the police running for reinforcements and riot gear. Short of giving stewards machine-guns, you will never stop hundreds of fans – not just at football, but one-day cricket, even rugby league – from storming a field of play. With every pitch invasion, the culprits become bolder because few, if any, are caught and punished.

What of the future? More of the same, I’m afraid. The foot­ball authorities and the security industry are confused about where to look for stewards’ training, and clubs don’t have to have the FSQ anyway. Even if they want to check the criminal records of potential stewards, some are hopelessly out of date (the British Transport Police are due to finish inputting pre-2000 cases by 2004).

Journalists may splutter and those in authority may wring their hands and state the obvious (“Pitches can’t be allowed to become battle grounds” – Graham Kelly) but they do not have fans throwing coins at them or running at them. Fences would stop pitch in­vas­ions, but they are costly and not TV-friendly, quite apart from the safety implications. All in all, then, expect some very English hypocrisy and not much action as a result of the events at Cardiff. It would not surprise me if a player or steward is seriously hurt or killed in a crush, whether on purpose or simply be­cause of fans’ high spirits. In those out of control situations, frankly, you’d appreciate Neil MacNamara as your minder.

From WSC 181 March 2002. What was happening this month