The wheels of justice can turn slowly at times, and sometimes they don’t turn at all. Yesterday, however, at the Warwick Crown Court sitting at Leamington, justice was seen to be done as a number of men were sentenced to spells in prison for their involvement in a serious crowd disturbance during an FA Cup Third Qualifying Round match between Atherstone Town and Barrow in October 2013. During the match, Barrow supporters were attacked and ten of them were injured, whilst a flare was thrown into the area in which they were standing, a flag was stolen from a seventeen year old girl (who suffered an asthma attack as a result of it all) and set on fire, whilst two of Barrow’s substitute players were punched.
This may have merely been just another case of mildly pathetic men intimidating innocent people because, somehow or other, their brains work in such a way that leaves them somehow feeling untouchable after six pints of cheap lager at eleven o’clock on a Saturday morning, had it not been for the blasé reaction of some of those involved on social media in the hours after the match. We noted at the time that Andrew Storey, a twenty year old road surfacer, would “likely come to regret making such public pronouncements of having committed a criminal offence” after he tweeted his involvement in the incident. He was sentenced to twenty months in a young offenders institute. Another person that we highlighted as having effectively admitted his role in it all, Ben Brookes, aged twenty-two, was released on bail pending pre-sentencing reports.
Meanwhile, a third man, Lewis Johnson, who was a student at Manchester University at the time of the incident, took the time to email this site and threaten us with libel action after we posted a tweet that he sent describing the day as “the best day of his life.” Under legal advice, we amended our story to emphasise that at that time Johnson had not directly been implicated in the trouble that had occurred. This week,however, Johnson, who has now graduated from university and had reportedly been seeking a career in accountancy, was imprisoned for thirty-two months for his involvement in it all. Another man is now also bailed pending pre-sentencing reports, whilst two men were acquitted and the jury remains in deliberation over a sixth. A further eight men had already been sentenced to a combined total of fourteen and a half years in prison for similar offences last month.
In other words, then, this is dumb story about dumb men acting dumbly. They likely won’t serve anything like the full terms of their sentences, but the criminal convictions on their records will affect their employment chances should they ever be looking to improve their working lives at all, whilst travelling abroad may become more difficult. The USA, for example, doesn’t recognise spent convictions and future travel there may now be dependent on obtaining a visa and may not be possible at all, and this could conceivably be extended to Europe should the United Kingdom leave the European Union after next year’s referendum on the matter. In other words, those convicted will pay a price, and that price won’t merely be limited the amount of time that they spend residing at her majesty’s pleasure. Employment will more difficult to find. Insurance may become more difficult and expensive to obtain. Even obtaining a mortgage can become more difficult. The costs of a criminal record have broader implications than merely the amount of a fine received or the amount of time spent in prison.
What, though, of Atherstone Town Football Club? It had long been an issue within the local football community that this club had an issue with an element of its “support.” This story received a considerable amount of national media attention, none of which did the club’s reputation any favours whatsoever, and the typical response of a football club to such unwanted attention would be assumed to be to publicly distance itself from those involved in the events of that day. Not so this club. This week its Facebook account chose to take a, shall we say, original stance over the news that a number of its supporters had been imprisoned for attacking away supporters during a match:
The new regime at Atherstone Town FC would like to extend our shock and dismay at the harsh and unjustifiable sentences handed out in court today to several young supporters for their part in the altercation during the FA Cup match against Barrow over two years ago. Whilst we, and I’m sure they and their families acknowledge they regret their actions of entering the field of play, to be treated and punished as they have been leaves a very bad taste indeed. Therefore, we wish those directly involved, their families and friends our support at this difficult time.
What can we say about such a public proclamation from a football club, apart from that it’s probably best described ill-advised, to say the least? To be clear, there is nothing to indicate that the behaviour of those involved anything like collective “moment of madness.” The events of that day panned out over many hours, up to and including bragging about their behaviour on social media in the evening. If the primary thing that Atherstone Town Football Club has taken from this whole dismal sequence of events is that the sentences handed down to those involved were too harsh – if the argument had been that they shouldn’t have been convicted in the first place, well, that would, of course, be a different matter – then perhaps this club should be reconsidering where its priorities rest.
There was also a hint of disingenuity about the club’s statement. “Regret” is a popular word, these days, often used by politicians and others who don’t wish to apologise for something but are under pressure to do so anyway. Given the fact that this was not the first time that the club’s supporters had behaved badly and the nature of their language in social media in the evening after the match, we might even venture to speculate that it’s entirely plausible that what those concerned really “regret” is getting caught, convicted and imprisoned, rather than their actual behaviour that day. Perhaps they genuinely were sorry for what they did, but the many of us who have come across people who behave in this manner elsewhere can certainly be forgiven for viewing such claims with a degree of scepticism. Contrition seldom usually seems to be particularly high on the list of priorities of those who behave that way in the first place, after all.
There is, perhaps, a conversation to be had regarding the heavy-handedness of the sentences awarded against those who misbehaved that day. Even taking into account how appalled we may be at the behaviour of those convicted and the fact that they will all be unlikely to serve anything like the full length of these terms, sentences of the extent that have been witnessed feel on the harsh side. Judges, however, have sentencing guidelines that are publicly available. These sentences were not made up on the fly. Football violence related offences have long been harsh, and there is an element of truth to familiar saying, “if you can’t do the time, don’t commit the crime” about it all. This, however, is absolutely, categorically not Atherstone Town’s battle to fight, and their pubic statement on the matter paints the club in an extremely negative light indeed. It is extremely unlikely that there will be a great of sympathy for those imprisoned outside of the immediate circles of those who know the people convicted.
We live in something approaching a free society, of course, and this football club is perfectly entitled to express an opinion on anything that it chooses to. Just as it is entitled to this, however, so are we free to criticise the club for this and wonder aloud at what such a statement says about its priorities and attitudes. Atherstone Town is a small football club in a small town. It, alongside hundreds of other football clubs the length and breadth of the country, needs all the help and support that it can get, but not all forms of support are equal, and its ill-advised decision to make a public statement of this nature only seems likely to alienate a wider match-going community than that which it is now perceived as defending. If none of this matters to the club, then that’s the club’s decision. It’s difficult to escape the feeling, however, that this is a football club that could probably do with a little public relations training.
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