The EFL, Stevenage and Grimsby: Talking Whilst Saying Nothing

by | Oct 27, 2017

For many years, talk of how to improve attendances at football matches often seemed to ultimately boil down to the idea that making grounds safer to visit and more welcoming to all members of the community was ultimately beneficial to everybody. When hooliganism reached its nadir in England during the first half of the 1980s, it was suggested that falling attendances had stripped back those who went to matches to such an extent that troublemakers, once a minority that it was easy to drown out, were amongst the few left who had the stomach to still attend matches, and that amongst the key issues required to make football more attractive to a modern audience were more effective policing and stewarding and a more welcoming atmosphere at matches.

Presumably, those who govern the professional game in this country no longer needs to be welcoming and inclusive for all. This certainly feels like the most rational explanation for recent behaviours, pronouncements and decisions made by both the Football Association and the Football League. The horrible misogyny and racism at the heart of the Football Association has been laid bare for all to see by the scandal that has emerged from the appalling treatment of Eni Aluko, a story which has remarkably still not led to any departures from the FA Council, but yesterday the Football League decided that it could go some way towards outshining the FA with a somewhat unsatisfactory announcement in conclusion of its investigation into stewarding at a League Two match between Stevenage and Grimsby Town in August.

This particular match made headlines after claims were made by travelling female Grimsby supporters of highly intrusive stewarding when the two clubs met at the start of the season. The allegations made were very serious in nature, that stewarding at a lower league football match was involving searches that far overstretched the boundaries of what any steward should be carrying out, up to and including female supporters being asked by female stewards if they could feel their bras if they confirmed that they were underwired and full body searches being carried out by stewards on children as young as five years old.

It’s taken a little over two months for the results of an investigation into the events of that day held by the Football League to come out, and yesterday the Football League finally released a statement on the matter, concluding that, well… nothing to see here. This statement, we note, does not state that the incidents that Grimsby supporters complained about did not occur. However, the specific wording of the statement and the League’s decision that “no specific action is to be taken under its rules” can only lead us to one of two conclusions: either they don’t consider the treatment of female travelling supporters by Stevenage stewards wasn’t important enough for them to have any particular interest in dealing with, or that their rules regarding the stewarding of away supporters at matches are not fit for purpose.

That the Football League should be coming off as completely and utterly tone deaf over this matter should be no great surprise to any of us. As greater light is shone upon the inner workings of the game’s governing bodies, it is becoming increasingly clear that the overwhelmingly dominant voice of those running English football remains that of the boorish white male. Why should we believe that the culture within the Football League would be any different to that which evidently exists within the Football Association? Had the Football League concluded from its investigation that the allegations made by travelling Grimsby supporters been a pack of lies, well, that would have been one thing, but the League offered no such refutation of the allegations made by travelling supporters, which can only leave us at the conclusion that we have reached.

The response of the Mariners Trust, the Grimsby Town Supporters Trust, was both articulate and withering:

The Mariners Trust is bitterly disappointed with the outcome of the review undertaken by the EFL and reaffirms our view the Football League has no regard for lower league clubs and their supporters.

How the EFL can say asking female supporters to lift their tops and show their bras does not break their rules is astounding. The EFL has not denied the incidents took place which makes their judgement even more laughable.

The fact that the national media were sent the outcome BEFORE the Mariners Trust speaks volumes.

Grimsby Town supporters were treated in an appalling manner when they visited Stevenage. The incidents were witnessed by a number of people and Stevenage FC failed to even acknowledge our concerns, brushing them off as if supporters don’t matter. We felt reporting it to the EFL was a last option to get our voice heard so that other supporters were not treated in the same way.

As with the introduction of Under 23 teams in the Checkatrade Trophy, the EFL seems determined to sideline football at lower levels.

Football fans won’t be ignored forever and the Mariners Trust will continue to work alongside the FSF and Supporters Direct to push for reforms in the way supporters continue to be treated as criminals. After all, watching football is not a crime.

It took two months for the EFL to come out and say nothing – it took them two hours to comment on Guardiola’s comments about footballs. This, we believe, shows where the League’s priorities lie – and it’s not with supporters.

We were grateful for the support of Grimsby Town FC during the investigation as their own members of staff were involved in incidents and we hope they will also condemn the whitewash from the EFL.

In light of the recent failures of the Football Association, the Football League had a real opportunity here to send out a message to female supporters about the extent to which they feel welcome within football grounds. If the League’s rules or guidelines over steward behaviour are in need of review, then this is a job that they should get on with at their earliest available convenience. Presuming that we accept as a base line that football grounds should be welcoming to all, both the League and the FA should give due consideration to including regulating minimum standards of stewarding in their overall regulation of clubs.

No-one would suggest that Stevenage should be particularly hauled over the coals over this, even though obviously home clubs should take responsibility for the standard of stewarding at their home matches. However, the Football League might have taken this opportunity to, regardless of the findings of its investigation, reaffirm its commitment to ensuring the highest standards of stewarding, to confirm that it considers the safety and integrity of all supporters to be important, without exception. They have failed to do so, but when we consider the League’s record in just about anything it deals with these days, perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us. After all, why trouble yourselves with addressing concerns over the treatment of those who pay to keep the Football League solvent when you could be making a mess of the draw for the quarter-finals of the League Cup or meeting to discuss comments made by a manager over the quality of match balls used in that self same competition?

The message should be clear for both the Football League and the Football Association. Go the extra step. Add the extra sentence to your statements. Have guidelines which prevent obfuscation and which place inclusivity at the very heart of all dealings with supporters who ultimately pay their wages. If there was something amiss in the stewarding at Stevenage, issue the club with guidance on how to correct this. If there wasn’t, take the opportunity to remind all clubs that football grounds should always be a welcoming environment for all supporters and that can be managed whilst maintaining plenty adequate levels of security. It doesn’t have to be confrontational, and it doesn’t have to be adversarial. When invited to comment on the matter, Amanda Jacks of the Football Supporters Federation stated that:

The statement appears to invite people to read between the lines, and given that it practically invites supporters to follow complaints procedures and gives the ombudsman’s details we would encourage those affected by stewarding, not just at Stevenage but at any club, to follow that route and I would be delighted to assist them in doing so.

Perhaps it’s time for the Football League and the Football Association to work more closely with the the Football Supporters Federation in order to create an environment in which supporters are treated a little more like the paying customers that we’re constantly told that we are these days. God knows they could do with a little positive PR, if nothing else. The common factor that seems to link so much of the discourse surrounding being a football supporter these days seems to be unhappiness of different sorts, and that feels like a problem that could have serious ramifications across the entire breadth of the game. It has long been considered that supporters in the twenty-first century are treated like no more than passive consumers. The danger is that, if we accept the role of passive consumers en masse, we’ll eventually realise that there might be more satisfying ways to spend our spare time and quite a large amount of money than being treated the way that supporters so often are, these days.