It only took two days for a familiar old boil that has never been properly lanced to rear its head in non-league football this year, as crowd trouble marred two non-league matches afternoon. These incidents occurred at Liberty Way, at the Blue Square North match between Nuneaton Town and AFC Telford United, and at the Ryman League match between Tilbury and Grays Athletic. Both matches were local derbies to some extent, so perhaps the question that we ought to be asking is of whether high-tension matches should be played on Bank Holiday weekends. It is a question that has been asked before – there was serious disorder at the end of last year’s Blue Square Premier match between Luton Town and York City, which was played on a Bank Holiday Monday – but perhaps the question has become one of whether they can afford not to.
At Nuneaton, the trouble was serious enough to have potential ramifications for the club itself in the form of a fine. Perhaps surprisingly, it seems that there were no police present at the match, only stewards presumably hired by the club itself, and the lion’s share of the trouble came at the end of the match after Telford supporters were held back, allowed to leave and then chased back into the ground by people purporting to be home supporters. A supporters coach was attacked and damage was also caused both inside and outside the Liberty Way ground itself. At Tilbury, meanwhile, the normal home crowd of around 60 was swollen to over 400 on the promise of a derby match between two clubs whose paths haven’t crossed very often in recent years, but after the match bricks, bottles and chairs were thrown and one person had to be taken to hospital. Moreover, this evening, a post on the Grays Athletic supporters forum written by a local journalist stated that:
I did personally witness a group of people, who had previously been in the company of a senior Grays official for much of the preceding two hours, chanting about the ‘ICF’ outside the door of Tilbury’s club.
This is a particularly troubling statement when we consider the past of the current CEO of Grays Athletic, Andy Swallow. Swallow’s page on the Grays official site doesn’t, perhaps understandably, make any reference to it, but Swallow has previous links with the former West Ham United hooligan firm that he has never denied. None of this is to suggest that he was the “senior Grays official” referred to above, that Grays Athletic supporters have any links to the ICF or even to suggest that any of the people involved in the incident described above were involved in any trouble at this match (although the club should clarify what exactly what was going on that led to this being reported), but it does provide us of a timely reminder of part of the reason why non-league matches can be flashpoints for trouble.
There is a simple reason why league schedule derby matches for bank holidays: money. Anybody that is a regular visitor to this site will be more than aware of the financial difficulties that so many non-league clubs have faced in recent years. A home match on Boxing Day or New Years Day can, if the fixture list falls conveniently, cover a significant hole in a club’s playing budget for a year. This isn’t, however, an ideal situation. Bigger crowds require more (and, it could be argued, better) stewarding or, in the case of bigger crowds, policing, and this doesn’t necessarily come cheap. The temptation certainly exists for smaller clubs to take a chance on the crowd behaving themselves and keeping costs down as much as possible. Certainly in the case of the Nuneaton match it has been reported that there was no police presence inside the ground at Liberty Way this afternoon.
No-one would seek to deny clubs the opportunity to make a pound or two from these fixtures, but this must never come at the cost of the safety of people at matches themselves. It’s a thin line to have to tread, but it is probably preferable to have matches over-staffed rather than under-staffed. Football Banning Orders can still be issued, but non-league clubs are unlikely to be able to enforce them and it is only in the unlikely event that someone with a Football Banning Order is arrested at a match will have their order enforced (which is punishable by up to six months in prison). Small wonder that the Home Office itself states that “this is extremely rare”. There is certainly plenty of incentive for people that want to cause trouble for the sake of causing it, wish to stay away from CCTV cameras and possibly face less experienced stewarding and/or a lower police presence to attend league matches.
We can say with a degree of certainty that seeking to appeal to the better nature of those that turn up at matches with the express intent of causing trouble is unlikely to get anyone very far. As such, fines being given out to clubs for incidents at their own grounds should only be given out in cases where clubs have specifically ignored police advice or otherwise acted without due regard for the safety of the majority of supporters. The influence of Football Banning Orders at non-league clubs seems likely to be more limited than in the Premier League or in the Football League, but there is no reason why all clubs shouldn’t review their arrangements for matches with higher than average attendances.
If it were to become apparent that clubs were not doing everything that they could in order to minimise trouble at matches, then the appropriate sanction might be to prevent them from hosting matches when a larger crowd would be likely. It is to be hoped, however, that all of the clubs involved in trouble today learn at least a lesson or two from today’s events – Boxing Day and New Year’s Day derby matches really are too valuable to non-league clubs for them to be able to cast them aside in future years.
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