Perhaps this fixture has come a year too soon. Were FC United of Manchester to be playing Brighton & Hove Albion in the FA Cup next year at The American Express Community Stadium, segregation would be easy and FC United would have over 3,000 tickets available to sell to their supporters. As it is, they have been allocated just 845 seats for the match at Withdean a week on Saturday and this has upset a good number of their supporters. Indeed, the issue started to cast something of a pall over the biggest match in the history of the young club and the ill-will being generated by it may yet lead to problems for both clubs next weekend.

FC United supporters had been expecting a ticket allocation of a minimum of 15% of the total capacity of Withdean for the match, which is due to be played next weekend. This would amount to a total number of 1,300 tickets being available to supporters of the club. This is part of the tournament rules on ticket allocation for matches prior to the semi-final of the competition, as laid out below:

In all matches preceding the Semi-Finals, the Visiting Club shall have the right to claim up
to 15% of all accommodation for which tickets are issued providing these tickets are in a
fully segregated area

So the rules are, perhaps, fuzzier than we might expect (the phrase “right to to claim up to 15% of all accommodation for which tickets are issued”, for example, could be interpreted in several different ways, many of which completely contradict each other), and exemptions do apply to grounds where segregation may be an issue which allow clubs to reduce ticket allocations if supporters cannot be effectively segregated in larger number. This is what seems to have been the problem at Withdean. The ground’s unsuitability as a venue for hosting football matches for a number of different reasons is well known. As an illustration, here is a picture of the Withdean Stadium, taken from the South Stand during the First Round match against Woking (click on the image for a bigger version):

The West Stand is on the very far left of the picture. The East Stands are three temporary stands at the opposite end of the pitch. They have a larger capacity and are nearer to the pitch, but they are also nearer to what might be regarded as the main entrance to the ground. The West Stand is usually allocated to away supporters for league matches and this is what has been allocated to FC United for this FA Cup match. One argument is that the only part of the ground that can effectively be segregated is in the West Stand. In the above photograph, we can see that the West Stand is closed for this match. However, in the previous round of the competition Brighton supporters were moved from the East Stands and Woking supporters were housed there for it. They were also given a far greater allocation than the 845 tickets given to FC United for this match, but returned many of them unsold.

What, FC United supporters may reasonably argue, is the difference this time? It is certainly fair enough to suggest that perhaps Brighton & Hove Albion could have been sympathetic in their attitude towards this their guests for this match. It is unlikely that Brighton will sell out their allocation of tickets and it would seem fairer, considering the importance that this match has for their guests, to give them over what would be considered the minimum allocation rather than under it for the purposes of segregation. Moreover, no official explanation has been given as to why, in the Second Round of the competition, a club that could be expected to fill (or get close to filling) 1,600 seats has only been given 845 tickets when a larger amount was allocated for the previous round. We do know, however, that this match is being treated differently to the Woking match by Brighton & Hove Albion. Even tickets in the home stands, for example, are only available to people that have bought tickets before, which wasn’t the case for the Woking match.

Over the last couple of days or so, however, it was suggested more than once that police concerns may be the reason behind the small ticket allocation offered to FC United. There are numerous possible reasons as to why the stadium advisory group could have been advised that it would be preferable to give them a smaller rather than larger allocation. Relatively widespread discussion of “jibbing in” (“bunking the fence”, in other words) on FC United’s forum may be one (although how literally internet forum discussion of anything should ever be taken seriously is obviously debatable). A mis-interpretation of the good natured pitch invasions at Rochdale in the First Round could be another, while the idea that people may come looking for a fight with what they perceive to be Manchester United supporters could be a third. All of these, however, remained speculation for two days and in themselves hinted at possibly the biggest problem of all with regard to this issue: a lack of communication.

It took FC United’s official website over twenty-four hours before any sort of message regarding the size of the allocation was made (it seems unlikely that this will be their final word on the subject), and as of last night (Friday), there had still been no official confirmation of why the smaller allocation has been made by Brighton & Hove Albion either, although an announcement was put up on their site yesterday regarding the behaviour of some of their own supporters at recent away matches at Peterborough United and Woking. In the meantime, however, nature (and, indeed, the internet) abhors a vacuum so the space has been filled by comments made from both sides of the parapets that have been at times unnecessary and unpleasant. The lack of a clear explanation as to why this allocation had been given has led to any number of theories, ranging from the sensible to the crazy. For example, when leaving Withdean at the end of the Woking match, it was noticeable that some Woking supporters were leaning over the back of the East Stands, gesticulating at the Brighton supporters below. It was easy to see how this area could become problematic to control in the event of any trouble. However, all the time a clear statement wasn’t made as to why the Woking ticketing arrangements are not being repeated for this game, possibly understandable reasons for this allocation being given would be likely to be disregarded.

Moreover, the decision to offer them such a small allocation could cause as many problems – if not more – as it solves. Talk of a boycott amongst FC United supporters seems unlikely to come to much, and it seems likely that there will be people that travel down to Brighton without a ticket as well as FC United supporters that manage, in spite of the efforts of Brighton & Hove Albion, to acquire tickets in areas of the ground reserved for the home supporters. These factors, coupled with a heightened sense of grievance on the part of some, could well lead to trouble and it would be unrealistic to say that they couldn’t. This means that there are practical criticisms as well as moral ones (the rules of the tournament, after all, give them a right to 15% of the tickets for this match and Brighton supporters – or the supporters of any other club – sounding off about them being angry about this would be well advised to consider how they would feel in the same circumstances) when we consider this matter.

This morning (Saturday), an official announcement was finally made by Brighton & Hove Albion, confirming the reasons for the limited allocation for the match:

Following a meeting of the Safety Advisory Group, the club allocated FC United of Manchester the West stand, the designated away area. The allocation of just over 10% is the same number of tickets allocated to Woking in round one. We are aware FC United have a potentially large following but the recommendations of the Safety Advisory Group, endorsed by the Football Licensing Authority and police was to allocate just the away end for this match, which is the first category C game at Withdean for more than five years.

It is welcome that the club has finally made an announcement, but it does raise the question of whether it is right that ordinary supporters should effectively be punished for a perception of trouble at this match and the fact remains that this reduced ticket allocation may have unintended consequences. It is to be hoped that, on the day, the Sussex Police and the stewards at Withdean behave themselves and don’t further inflame a touchy situation. For all of that, however, it is of course worth remembering that FC United supporters are responsible for their own behaviour. They are, of course, the owners of their club.

The over-riding feeling of the last couple of days has been what a shame all of this is. What a shame it is that there has been a degree of antagonism over the last couple of days between the supporters of two clubs that have, in their own ways, both fought their battles and won. What a shame it is that FC United supporters will likely miss out on the biggest match in their club’s short history. What a shame it is that this match has to be played at Withdean rather than Falmer. “Making Friends Not Millionaires” remains a popular slogan at FC United of Manchester and this can still be easily managed next weekend, as it has been on many previous occasions. There remains plenty of reason to be confident that those that do make their way down to Sussex By The Sea next weekend will enjoy their stay with us.

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