Stevenage & Grimsby Town: A Storm In A D-Cup?
On paper at least, a League Two match between Stevenage and Grimsby Town would hardly be expected to be the sort of football match that makes national newspaper headlines, and indeed casual observers of lower league football might have been forgiven for glancing at the results and assuming that nothing particularly unusual had happened. Stevenage won the game by three goals to one – their first league win of the season – Grimsby had a player sent off, and a crowd of just under 2,800 people was present to watch it all. So far, so routine. However, events away from the pitch during this match are now dragging the name of Stevenage Football Club through the mud, and it’s difficult to argue, on the basis of what we understand, that the club doesn’t warrant at least some of the criticism that it is currently receiving in the press.
Reports of the way in which stewards treated Grimsby supporters during this match have crossed a line from being just another August “silly season” story into being something altogether more troubling. Grimsby supporters have claimed that more than ten female supporters were asked to lift up their tops to show their bras to female stewards in view of other supporters, including men and male stewards, whilst elsewhere children as young as five years old were said to have been given full-body searches by stewards whose behaviour, on the basis of eye-witness reports, sounds considerably beyond the remit of what anybody in such a position should be permitted to do. The matter was subsequently taken up by the club’s supporters trust, the Mariners Trust, who issued an articulate, furious and lengthy open letter to Stevenage which detailed further allegations regarding the appalling treatment of Grimsby supporters that day, which also included the following:
- Female supporters being asked by female stewards if they could feel their bras if they confirmed that they were underwired.
- Full body searches being carried out by stewards on children as young as five years old.
- Items not on the club’s banned list being seized by stewards upon entry to the ground, including a tiny bottle of hand sanitiser, contact lens solution, cough sweets and medication.
- A female steward being posted inside the male toilets near the away turnstiles who, when asked to leave by Grimsby Town supporters, refused to do so despite the fact that several male stewards and police officers were stood outside.
- No washing facilities in the men’s toilets, including no soap, drying facilities or hand sanitisers (somewhat ironically, considering what was being confiscated from them upon entry into the ground.)
- Stewards lining up in front of away supporters sat in the front and second rows of the seating areas, blocking their view of the match who, when questioned by supporters about this, rudely told them they could move if they couldn’t see, in contravention of the terms and conditions of sale.
- Grimsby Town supporters – including a Mariners Trust board member – asking for the names of the stewards and their superiors and this request being declined.
- Supporters being told by a steward that they didn’t have the right to receive her name or take her photograph. (This particular steward, it has been claimed, was particularly antagonistic towards away supporters, reportedly making a ‘fisticuffs’ gesture to a colleague, mock cheering when Grimsby scored and making otherwise antagonistic hand gestures.)
When pushed on the matter, both Hertfordshire Police and Stevenage FC seemed to take the viewpoint that Grimsby supporters had somehow brought this upon themselves. The Stevenage statement claimed that “the risk assessment going into Saturday’s game indicated high risk groups attending and the potential for anti-social and uncooperative behaviour”, whilst the police stated that they had not been contacted by supporters and that they were present at the ground in the first place “due to intelligence regarding a previous game between Chesterfield and Grimsby Town, where there was public disorder and members of the public were injured.” This was picked up by Stevenage local newspaper The Comet who reported that “After Grimsby’s season opener on August 5, Derbyshire police reported they had carried out a “significant” operation as some 2,700 Grimsby supporters travelled to the game – and that some pubs in Chesterfield decided to shut their doors after the final whistle because of “nuisance and rowdy behaviour” by small groups of fans before the match.”
Curiously, though, Googling for the disorder to which Hertfordshire Police refer doesn’t bring up anything apart from some grainy YouTube footage of trouble at a match between the two sides from January 2008, even though the match specifically being referred to was only played a couple of weeks ago. The thread on the match (and others from the same time) from Grimsby forum The Fishy makes no reference to any crowd trouble that day, and reports from the Derbyshire Police that pubs in Chesterfield had closed before the match due to damage caused were disputed on a Chesterfield supporters forum not long after the match ended. There appear to have been a small number of travelling supporters who drank too much that day and what seems to have happened is that an incident within the ground involving a flare or smoke bomb coupled with the disorderly behaviour of what was – at worst – a tiny minority of the 2,700 Grimsby supporters who travelled to Chesterfield earlier in the day may well have led to the need to search Grimsby supporters at Stevenage. This, however, doesn’t justify the over the top security arrangements put in place the following week.
This, however, isn’t what’s being disputed in this case. Indeed, the Mariners Trust open letter begins by saying that, “we appreciate the need to steward and police football matches in a safe manner and, with current world events, to ensure the safety of all of those at the ground.” This is a matter of what is proportionate in terms of stewarding a sporting event. At, say, an airport, one doesn’t receive this sort of attention from border patrol staff unless they have grounds to believe that you’re attempting to smuggle something on board, and even this happens after x-ray checks of hand luggage and your body. The Lamex Stadium, however, isn’t a Boeing 737 and Grimsby Town supporters, even those who may travel with the intent to cause disorder, are not a threat to national security. It should be as clear as day that female supporters should never be treated in this way in the act of attending a football match, and a full, detailed explanation as to why such draconian and invasive checks were carried out. And no, ‘we believe that women were being used to smuggle smoke bombs into the ground’ is not a reasonable response to this.
Grimsby Town last night offered a full-blooded response to the Stevenage statement on the matter, which concluded that, “We will be raising this formally with Stevenage tomorrow and fully refute having any finger of blame pointed in our direction.” In the meantime, we will all have to wait and see what the outcome of any investigation by both clubs, the Football League and the police ends up being. In the meantime, though, we can say one thing for certain. These two clubs will play a return fixture later on this season at Blundell Park, and this fixture is likely now higher-risk than it would otherwise have been. And this, perhaps, is the problem with the stewarding of football matches. They’re usually meticulously planned, with considerable reference to the behaviour of supporters at previous matches. But heavy-handed stewarding can come at a cost, and perhaps greater consideration should be given to future fixtures between clubs as well. And beyond that, perhaps it’s time that all clubs stopped treating visiting supporters like a problem to be dealt with rather than as guests at their home as a default option.
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