Police advice that Premier League clubs must play at neutral venues if they resume the season has “no rationale” and risks demonising supporters by assuming they will gather unsafely outside grounds, a former football policing commander has said.
Owen West, a recently retired West Yorkshire police chief superintendent, told the Guardian that football clubs can help give a lead as local community organisations to any gradual easing of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions and do not need to be removed from their home locations to play.
“The problem we are all facing is the spread of the coronavirus, yet the potential return of football matches is being discussed as a public order issue, as if supporters are going to gather en masse outside grounds,” said West, a senior consultant with Enable, a group of experts who promote a progressive approach to football policing. “That tone demonises fans who have been very mature during this crisis, complying with the lockdown and also contributing admirably, to foodbanks and community aid.”
Enable, whose leadership includes Clifford Stott, a professor of social psychology who sits on the SPI-B sub-committee of the government’s scientific advisory group on emergencies (Sage) providing advice on the coronavirus crisis, has been funded by the EFL for two years to research collaborative policing.
“I do not see the rationale for regional hubs,” West said. “I believe football clubs, in their localities, can play a leadership role in the crisis, hosting matches when they are allowed, and giving guidance to their supporters about the social distancing and other measures required to keep safe.”
The Premier League’s “Project Restart” plan proposes playing remaining matches at eight to 10 neutral grounds. That is understood to result partly from police advice to the government that supporters would gather in large numbers outside home grounds and breach physical distancing requirements. Mark Roberts, head of the UK Football Policing Unit and deputy chief constable at South Yorkshire police, told the Guardian that the Premier League and EFL would be putting an “impracticable” strain on police and other emergency services if they played matches at home.
“Football must appreciate that as the country begins what will inevitably be a long route to normality there will be a significant and unpredictable demand on the police, ambulance and local authorities, all of which are currently stretched, in part through the abstraction of our staff,” Roberts said. “In my own force, our planning team, including football officers, have been redeployed into a logistical team managing elements of our Covid-19 response
“The requirement of football is that it should look at flexible options that minimise its call on public services and not add to them through unrealistic demands.
“Playing out 450+ games at 92 stadiums is, in my view, an impracticable burden to put on the police, ambulance and local authorities. In addition to football’s own issues around stadiums, it is unrealistic not to envisage large gatherings of supporters celebrating various on-field achievements.”
West criticised Roberts’ tone as too “punitive”, based on supporters being a public order problem. “The language is of stark warnings being given about fans gathering, which is really disappointing. If the prime minister relaxes freedom to exercise and engage in leisure, it may be that people might attend near their home ground. As long as they do so in a safe way, I don’t see a problem.”
Roberts clarified that he had not received firm proposals from the Premier League, whose clubs are awaiting the government’s update on the lockdown, expected to be eased slightly on Sunday night, before clarifying their plans further at a meeting on Monday. Several clubs including Brighton and Aston Villa have publicly stated opposition to neutral venues, arguing that playing at home grounds better preserves sporting integrity and can be made as safe as neutral venues. The EFL has said it does want to play matches at home grounds.
Roberts, speaking to ITV, said football people talking about sporting integrity needed to “get a grip” and consider the casualties of Covid-19: “In the broader context where the country has seen 30,000-and rising deaths, some of the people making these comments need to get a grip, because we’ve all got a responsibility – yes to make progress for the benefit of the country – but equally to do it in a way that minimises the risk that anything we do adds to that death toll,” he said.