Stewards inquiry

Andrew Fraser explains how a recent court case involving a Stockport steward highlighted widespread concern about ground safety

Football safety experts fear a renewed smug-ness about stadium safety, plus financial restraints on clubs outside the Premiership, could threaten a new Hillsborough in English grounds.

Stockport County recently reached an out of court settlement of an unfair dismissal case with their ground safety officer, Phil Collister, who was made redundant after an extended period of sick leave – brought on, he contends, by a testing workload at the club. Before his dismissal Collister had claimed that the club’s Railway End terrace was dangerously overcrowded during the Coca-Cola semi-final against Middlesbrough in 1997 – and capacity was consequently cut from 2,500 to 2,000.

County argued that following the redevelopment of the once ramshackle Edgeley Park, there is a “diminished requirement” for the implementation of safety procedures. The club decided to share out Collister’s duties among other staff on a part-time basis, and have refused to comment following the case.

David Conn, author of The Football Business, a critique of modern football, helped represent Collister at his tribunal against Stockport. He believes that, in general, there is little commitment to a safety culture. “The pressure on ground safety officers from commercial managers is immense. The commercial manager goes to the club chairman and tells him new ways he intends to boost profits, while all the safety officer seems to do is act as a drain on resources. Even in the Premiership, where clubs have money coming out of their ears, many don’t have a proper budget. ”

County’s move was lambasted by Leon Blackburn, chairman of the Football Safety Officers Association and ground safety officer at Norwich City, who says: “Any suggestion of a reduced requirement for public safety management is not only factually incorrect but also betrays the air of complacency cautioned against by Lord Justice Taylor.”

A large part of the problem, Blackburn believes, is that responsibility for monitoring safety standards is split between the Football Licensing Authority and local councils. “There may be differences in the way the different local authorities interpret the rules,” says Blackburn. “For instance, at Norwich the council is very vigilant. Maybe if this local authority inspected clubs in other parts of the country they might find things a bit more stringent. The problem is, who the hell do football clubs answer to?”

Steve Frosdick, an academic and independent stadium safety advisor, believes in some areas councils, for political reasons, are less willing to come down hard on errant clubs: “Some local authorities lack the expertise to do the job properly. In others, with perhaps only one designated football ground, the relationship between club and council may be closer than is healthy. Lancashire Council, for instance, are hard-arsed bastards when it comes to ground safety because they have so many clubs in their area.

“It goes against current government thinking to take it out of the hands of local authorities, but I would like to see the FLA’s role expanded into a sports safety executive, who would enforce the big stuff. There has been a massive programme of rebuilding, but it’s a mixed bag. Where there has been redevelopment, a lot of clubs haven’t done the work with safety, security or comfort uppermost in their minds. In some Premiership grounds you could say ‘Look how tightly it preserves the atmosphere of the old terraces’ or you could wonder if the chairman has said ‘Just get as many seats into the space as possible’.”

Frosdick continues, “I believe a disaster will happen again, at a smaller club operating outside its experience. Stevenage Borough’s ground was licensed to operate at a 6,000 capacity and yet they were allowed to increase it by 2,000 for the Cup tie with Newcastle. That, in my opinion, was wrong. It should have gone ahead at Stevenage at existing capacity. Almost every year there is a problem in the first round of the FA Cup where a club is stretched beyond its experience – and this is the sort of place where disaster will occur.”

England may yet be awarded the 2006 World Cup on the basis of having the best redeveloped stadia in the world, while safety in the lower leagues is in the process of being fatally compromised by lack of money.

From WSC 139 September 1998. What was happening this month