Football Blog: Tangerine Flavoured

Sunday, November 7, 2021

After match aftermath

I don't often write like this so bear with me please. I'm going to try and keep it to the point. If you read the blog, you'll know, that's not really my preferred style so it could be a challenge. You can find the actual football stuff I'd prefer to write about here

The policing at Bloomfield Road has been an issue bubbling under for some time. There's several strands to it but I want to focus on three major issues. 

1) The post match plan against Preston was appalling. Put simply, fans were sent away from the ground to meet each other in an unpoliced area. This isn't heresay or rumour, this was my own experience. My lad has been to lots of away games and for the only time since I've taken him to football, I felt in a potentially unsafe situation. I didn't witness any actual violence or suffer any physical ill effects, but it was clear the threat was present and indeed, according to videos, at that self same flash point, trouble did occur, not long after I'd left it. 

My issue is not that trouble happened. I appreciate as someone who has attended football matches for more than 3 decades, that sometimes trouble happens and a small number of people may be actively seeking it. Usually it happens away from fans who are only there to enjoy the game, the elderly, kids etc. Having herded fans en masse, together, to meet (without warning) the opposition fans (who were in the same situation and many of whom expressed the same incredulity at the arrangements) was a bizarre decision at best. 

2) Communication has been poor. In the aftermath of that game, the Police issued a statement seemingly suggesting that the comments received were little more than moaning about having to walk a bit further. The main thrust of the post was celebrating how well they'd managed the situation.

Having read many comments from supporters (and offered my own), I would say that the ratio of comments complaining about the plan itself and the issue raised above outweighed those about the extra walking by at least 10 to 1. The response gave no indication of taking on board the feedback offered by supporters, even though it directly related to public order and safety. This seems at best, disappointing.

Supporters are frequently urged to behave responsibly and to listen to the instructions given to them (and do) and yet, the police don't seem to see this as a two way street. Fans are merely there to obey and be herded and they, the police are thus above mistakes. We all make errors. It is human. A uniform is no insurance against fallibility. 

What also is also contributory is that the plans aren't communicated before they happen. Fans are simply met by a roadblock and ordered to head in a particular direction. No announcements are made, no reasons given. Just orders. 

It is not the fault of officers on the ground but frustrations are vented at them because they've been left with the job of not only policing but also explaining the plan in the heat of the moment. This inflames a situation that is already challenging. I do not envy a police officer positioned in between two sets of supporters and I sympathise with them bearing the weight of justifying orders given from afar. 

3) The plan has shown no consistency at all. The Preston game, the Stoke game and the QPR game have all been completely different in approach which means that supporters do not know what to expect. Whilst this may seem a small point to the police, people attend football games with infirmities, disabilities and conditions like autism. Routine and access is important to some. Children attend games who can be easily frightened. Across three games, supporters have been herded up a road into away fans, then allowed to walk freely (with away fans able to intimidate etc) then penned in a small area and refused to be allowed to leave the environs of the stadium freely.  

As pointed out above, a lack of communication compounds the issue. This is, to my eye, also putting these officers into an unfair situation. No routine develops. They are put under pressure with fans who want to know what, where and why.

I'm not interested in writing a blog about policing at large or commenting on anything other than this situation. This is not a politically motivated statement. This is something that directly affects me and other supporters. I am only writing this because 

a) I believe the situation is potentially dangerous - In addition to the 23/10 local derby concerns, on 6/11 the crowds outside the South Stand were tightly packed and had someone (an elderly person, a child perhaps) tripped and fallen, the situation could have been extremely unpleasant. This isn't hyperbole. This is a concern widely felt by reasonable football supporters. 

b) I believe this can impact on the growth of the club. After a long period of stagnation and turmoil, the club is firmly on the up. It is being run well and becoming something for the people of Blackpool to be proud of. It has huge potential to grow further and stimulate the area around it. Would a new supporter or someone taking their child to their first match have felt that being penned in outside the stadium for a length of time with snarling dogs and stone faced police scanning them suspiciously was an experience they wish to repeat? 

Effectively criminalising people because they have attended a football match is unacceptable. It should not be the case that the tremendous experience of attending a game comes with a counter experience such as this. It also has to be said that these are home fans. It is becoming increasingly surreal to learn that I am expected to be penned in a tight area or diverted away from a usual route instead of away support being kept in the ground for 10 minutes. If the police have intelligence that lead them to believe trouble is likely, I accept that they have the right and duty to attempt to prevent it. 

However, doing this by kettling people on a street, forcing them through a narrow path or into unpoliced flashpoints they wouldn't otherwise encounter is a very odd way of 'protecting' them. As an away fan (and this isn't about home vs away fans, though it has to be said, it seems logical to focus resources on the significantly smaller body of away support), I would rather remain in a ground for a short period of time (a well lit place with facilities) than be unnecessarily penned and corralled on a dark street with uneven surfaces and moving crowds.

We've heard that the police 'can't' keep fans in the stadium, but it seems they 'can' keep them penned in aggressively on the public highway. I'm no legal expert, but I can't really see a distinction. In fact, the latter seems worse than the former in terms of the issues I raise above. 

In short, the club pays the policing bill and the issues around the exit from the stadium are undermining the potential for the club to grow. I think it needs addressing by the club and whilst I recognise the club may not have the power to make an instant impact to the situation by themselves, I think it would be well received by supporters to hear the club acknowledging a need for discussion and change. To simply hear they are seeking clarifications or review would be very positive. We all enjoy the updates the club make and the quality of the media offering, but all the slick marketing in the world will be undone if the experience of leaving the ground remains as it is. The 'hardcore' may put up with it and attempt to mediate the situation themselves, but the new supporters the club is working hard to attract will not. 

With regards to the police, a similar rule applies. I sympathise with the difficulty of policing football matches but in 30 years of attending games at Bloomfield Road (and many other venues in England and Scotland) I have rarely experienced the issues described, particularly when attending the game as a home fan. It is genuinely strange and needs addressing with some urgency because there is a real danger the police will lose consent and/or a serious issue will occur. This is the only reason to write this. I have no wider axe to grind. The success of the club is a success for the town and if the town is doing well, the job of policing is made easier. 

I don't know the underlying reasons for this situation and whilst the conclusions below may be inaccurate, they are only conclusions available to us in lieu of meaningful open dialogue in the public realm. We can only therefore guess that 

a) the situation is badly managed 
b) there is a desire (for reasons I cannot fathom) to actively disrupt the experience of football supporters or football itself in Blackpool. A kind of strange provocation or a display of power. 
c) a combination of both exists. 

I would very much like to believe that the answer is actually

d) - something else that is not understood fully and can be resolved through working together

Unless we see a proper dialogue with the club, supporters and the police aiming at creating a better solution than the current disruptive policing approach bingo it is natural that supporters will use the evidence of their own eyes and experiences to form one of the first 3 conclusions

Policing is not easy, only a fool would suggest it is - but listening is. Fans will listen to reason and the situation has been demonstrably unreasonable.

Will the authorities do us the same courtesy? 
If you don't hear from me again, the dogs have got me

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