BIAS held an open meeting with Charlton safety officer, John Little, on Saturday 25th March.
Also in attendance at this meeting were several Brentford supporters, including the supporter at the centre of the issue, and Gary Newman who is Charlton’s Deputy Safety Officer.
Mr Little gave a brief history about the lead-up to the game, including comments on the Football Safety Officers’ Association website, and noted that Brentford was similar to Charlton in many respects in that we are a very much a family club but do have a minority hooligan element. Most recently there were concerns at Southend when pool balls were stolen from the local pubs. Mr Little also said that he had very strong views about pitch incursions and that we had recently had two significant pitch invasions which can go wrong as the Fulham v Chelsea fixture showed.
On the day of the Charlton-Brentford match, there was a greater than normal emphasis on searching, particularly with regard to away fans. Police had been following a couple of groups of Brentford supporters, including one large group which split up as it neared the area around the stadium.
Regarding the decision to have a line of stewards on the 18 yard line at the end of the match, Mr Little said that it was nothing to do with whom Charlton were playing that day, but this was a result of problems at the Manchester United game when van Nistelroy jumped into the crowd causing a crowd surge and a pitch-side gate to collapse, injuring a photographer. A similar event happened at the end of the game and in their next fixture against Blackburn. For the next few games it was decided to not let the opposition players approach the away supporters. Mr Little said “perhaps it was the wrong decision”.
A point was made that the police said that they were disappointed with the behaviour of the stewards. Mr Little said that in the debrief after the game they discovered that 80% of the police in the South Stand that day had never worked in a football ground before and therefore he doesn’t give any credit to what the police said.
Regarding the initial incident the supporter was asked to stop doing something and he didn’t comply and was abusive. Mr Little said that the stewards initially entered to give the supporter a warning.
The supporter in question told the meeting that he had gone in for a good time. When the stewards – of whom he said there were about 14 – came into the stand they told him “that’s it lads – your game’s finished”, and then understood from what he was told that the stewards would be getting the police to eject him. He said that he then turned to watch the game and was then suddenly pulled out. The supporter admitted hitting a steward and admitted that that was wrong but was surprised at being manhandled by stewards when he had understood the police were coming. He said that he was thrown to the ground by three stewards and then had his head smashed into the ground. Then the steward whom he had hit joined the melee and was asked by other stewards “do you want a piece of him?” and that the stewards waded-in and absolutely booted the hell of him.
In response Mr Little said that “if there is any evidence of any steward kicking you then we’ll have him arrested” and that he “would expect the police to arrest stewards if that were the case”. Mr Little said it was the responsibility of stewards to eject. He also said that there had been so many stewards at the incident because there were seemingly a lot of other supporters potentially wanting to get involved.
Gary Newman said that as clubs move up through the leagues they gain more attention from the league, the police & local authorities, and that they encounter more “positive stewarding” and that there is an “almost zero tolerance”. He said “if you ask someone to sit down and get ‘no mate’ back, that’s it. Gone. We had Charlton fans ejected the other night. Eleven ejected for non-compliance”. He went on to say that, if promoted, that we should enjoy football in The Championship but be very wary of the way you arrive at the stadium because the CCTV equipment is so sophisticated it knows when you got off the train half a mile away; where you went for something to eat; how much money you have in your hand. He continued “as you move up the divisions you will come under much more scrutiny and what is acceptable this season in League One may not be acceptable in The Championship” and that we “would need to be very very compliant”.
The supporter at the centre of the initial incident noted that the CCTV was “not so sophisticated that it can see someone kicking me on the ground” to which Mr Little replied “If there is evidence that people kicked you on the ground then we will prosecute them. There were police officers there – why didn’t they arrest them?”
Another supporter made the comment that “for whatever reason, the stewards had an opinion of Brentford fans before they arrived. That influenced the way that they stewarded the game. There’s a difference between ‘positive stewarding’ and having Carte Blanche to kick the sh** out of people. For us it was a good atmosphere. My view is that from the minute we came into the ground; by the way we were searched, the stewards have been told that we were there for trouble”.
Another supporter said that Mr Little was “slightly in denial” as there were people ejected for being drunk at the turnstiles being manhandled by 3 or 4 stewards even though no resistance was offered. Mr Little replied that Doug Hopkins – the Senior Crowd Advisor for the FA – was there and called it “some of the best stewarding he has seen” and that “it’s good to see stewards that are prepared to put themselves on the line”.
Mr Little added that “once some of the ‘key people’ were ejected it quietened right down”.
An “upstanding member of the local community and local councillor”, Luke Kirton, said regarding the initial incident that he couldn’t believe what he was seeing, and that he and seen numerous matches up and down the country and he had seen nothing like it. Luke also mentioned that some people from a family of 4 were ejected due to a ticketing issue in the South, which led to the remainder of the group behaving as they might not have done if those ejections had not been carried out. “The atmosphere wasn’t the one people had come in with but was created inside the ground by stewarding. If there was no aggression in the first place then ‘those that will’ would not have had an excuse”. Luke asked how it can be right for stewards to sit upon and kick a supporter. Mr Little again explained that he has no evidence of kicking. It was pointed out to him that there was evidence from those in the room. He replied by saying “I apologise if you think I did treat everyone like the minority”.
Mr Little suggested that we ask our Safety Officer to print off items on the Football Safety Officers’ Association website about our away games. He referred to a stabbing a couple of years ago at Southend. Mr Little was then asked how many of these incidents referred to on that website happened inside the ground. He replied “a small amount”.
Gary Newman said that the Senior Crowd Advisor for the FA was “trackside” and that Mr Little has in the control room letters from Mr Hopkins giving him the highest accolades. Mr Newman reiterated that “there is a zero tolerance policy. If a steward says ‘I’m going to search you’ and you say ‘why?’ That’s it. Gone”. Some supporters said that this was a ridiculous attitude. Mr Little went on to say that that the Ground Regulations should be pinned up by every turnstile and in our Season Tickets books, and that at the bottom of them it says that by entering the stadium you are accepting the regulations”. Mr Newman then stated that you can be ejected for being a nuisance and if you have a radio listening to results and the steward asks you to turn it down and you don’t then “out!”.
Mr Little was asked whether Greg Dyke and Andy Finch were misquoted. He said “myself and the Operations Director went to see your Chairman and CEO and they both said that they were happy with it. Their exact words were that they were happy with what they had seen. If they say something different when under pressure from you lot…but that’s what they said to me at the time”.
Mr Little was asked what he thought would have happened had the initial incident been dealt with differently. Mr Little said that in his honest opinion that those in the East Stand would have kicked off anyway.
At the end of the meeting Mr Little said that he would take on board the comments that had been made and would make some discreet enquiring of the people that worked that day. And also that they would go back and take something out of it. The meeting expressed its thanks to Mr Little and Mr Newman for coming, and recognises that they had no obligation to do so.