In some respects it was inevitable that a group of fans would collectively reach a breaking point, and take a stand at the way supporters are treated by many professional clubs. However the fact that it happened at Elland Road yesterday, and the Cardiff City fans concerned ended up boycotting the end of a game where they had already paid was still a surprise.
Cardiff City fans don’t have the greatest of reputations, most notably due to the actions of the Soul Crew – one of the most notorious of the hooligan firms of the 70s, 80s and 90s – and matches between the Bluebirds and Leeds United have had flashpoints in the past (most notably the FA Cup Third Round game between the two in 2002. However, while I would never defend nor condone hooliganism, not every Cardiff City fan is a hooligan. In fact the vast majority of Bluebirds fans are law abiding citizens, and most of their away following just want to follow their team round the country, like fans of most teams. In fact, the club has brought in so many effective measures designed to reduce hooliganism at Cardiff games, that they are the current holders of the title “Football League Family Club of the Year”
However, unlike fans from most other teams, Cardiff City fans have to jump through the more than the occasional hoop when travelling away from home. In recent seasons Wolverhampton Wanderers banned all Cardiff fans from attending, and the Police have a stronger presence at games where flashpoints have occurred in similar fixtures in the past. And while there are good reasons for certain actions taken by the authorities, because the decisions have been taken with the general public’s safety in mind, but sometimes decisions made by police, stewards and/or the clubs themselves go too far. And yesterday’s treatment of Cardiff City fans at Elland Road was one of those occasions.
First of all, the game kicked off at 1.15pm. Not the ideal time and day for weekend football, but the “heated rivalry” aspect was one of the reasons why the game was selected for live screening by Sky. One might expect that such a game with a heated rivalry might usually be moved to a Sunday by the police (as happens with local derbies up and down the country), with an early kickoff as a matter of course. Not so. Cardiff have only played at Elland Road in the League four times in the last seventeen years – and all of these have taken place since 2005. Apart from the meeting between the two in October 2010 (which was also switched to a Monday night for television coverage), all of the other meetings between the two have taken place at the traditional time of 3pm on a Saturday.
As well as the time, there come the excessive prices at Elland Road. These apply to all fans at all clubs, and Leeds fans bear the brunt of one of the most expensive ticket schemes outside the Premier League. Adult tickets were £36, with the “concessions” being a bargain £29 and £25 for seniors and children respectively, for a seat at the southern end of in the West Stand Upper (an area that Leeds have struggled to sell tickets to home fans in the past, mainly because it offers the worst view of Elland Road, with the far goal obscured). However, Cardiff fans were not able to get these tickets from the ticket office in Cardiff – they had to collect them from Woolley Edge service station on the M1, eleven miles away from Elland Road – between 10.45am and 11.30am – before being escorted to the ground. This meant that you either had to drive (an option presumably only allowed for non-Cardiff based fans), or take the coaches laid on by the club, and even then you either had to be a season ticket holder and be an away member with photo membership card to get a ticket in the first place. This membership scheme one of the many successful measures that Cardiff have brought in to try and curb their hooligan element.
Once in the ground, the treatment of the fans did not improve. As well as being filmed and photographed from the front of the stand by a handful of police officers, the stewards started ejecting large numbers of fans for persistent standing (something that also recently happened when Portsmouth visited Elland Road, and is becoming a common occurrence at grounds). Now, contrary to popular belief, standing up at a Premier League or Championship ground is not illegal. The Football Spectators Act states that clubs in the top two tiers have to provide all-seater stadia, not that fans have to use the seats. This was confirmed by a letter from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to the Football Supporter’s Federation in 2008 stated ‘At no point has it been argued that the individual spectator commits a criminal offence by standing in a seated area. ‘Persistent standing; however is against Leeds United’s ground regulations – but this is the case for almost all Premier League and Championship clubs, and the standard ground regulations that the Football League pass on to their member clubs state: ‘Nobody may stand in any seating area whilst play is in progress. Persistent standing in seated areas whilst play is in progress is
strictly forbidden and may result in ejection from the ground’. However, in reality most clubs try and adopt a relaxed attitude towards fans standing in seated areas (Richard Scudamore is quoted as saying that ‘a measure of persistent standing should be tolerated’ at a meeting of the Football Licensing Authory in 2006) and surely, if the game was being treated as such a potential flashpoint in the build up by the police, that surely the stewards should have taken an approach to turn a blind eye, rather than risk inflaming what the local police had otherwise considered such a delicate situation.
However, the action that approximately 100 of the Cardiff City contingent took, was not to respond to such heavy-handed tactics in kind. Instead, they walked out in solidarity, and began demonstrating outside the ground, in protest at the ejection of their fellow supporters. The demonstration was subsequently filmed by the police and a representative of the Football Supporters Federation – the Leeds stewards attempted to stop the FSF representative filming, and demanded his footage, but this was refused (as stewards have no legal right to do this). As a one-off protest, what will this mean? So far, it has hardly been reported in the media, and Ken Bates will hardly be bothered, as the boycotting fans will already have handed over their money to him – but yesterday’s events were clearly the final straw for a number of fans, many of whom will decide to visit fewer away games (and maybe even home games too) in future, and if one group of fans decide to boycott a game while they are leading, what is to stop other fans making similar points, by going through the type of rigmarole that the Cardiff fans were subjected to yesterday, but stopping short of paying to get into the game?
In a year where the FA Premier League have threatened to withhold funding from Supporters Direct and the Football League clubs, and at a time when clubs are continue to increase the cost of watching the game, individual fans have been making decisions to stop funding football – in part, in total, or just at certain levels of the game, but most of these decisions have been made individually, with no real message sent to the authorities that when it comes to handing over money, most professional clubs now view fans as customers, yet fans are increasingly finding that they are no longer treated as customers once they have paid the entrance fee. However, this type of instantaneous protest sits alongside a number of protests being arranged to show the clubs, authorities and television channels exactly just how important supporters are to the game, and who actually funds the game in the first place. And if clubs want to continue accepting the custom of fans, they may have to start treating them as customers, otherwise fans might start acting like customers, and like the Cardiff fans yesterday, vote with their feet.
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