Re-look late kick-offs for fan safety

IT WAS like going back to the 1980s on Saturday night. No, not the pitch invasion at Villa Park, which appeared to be over-exuberant and silly.

What created the sinking feeling of regression was knee-jerk moral panic.

The timing is gruesome. This week, former chief superintendent David Duckenfield, the match commander at Hillsborough, will give evidence to the inquests into the 96 deaths at the FA Cup semi-final in 1989.

The sight of fans misbehaving live on television will reinforce all the stereotypes that helped to create conditions for the disaster.

Events such as those on Saturday will provide those who are eager to absolve the authorities from responsibility for events in Sheffield 26 years ago with more ammunition.

This was not a "return to hooliganism" in the way we recall the 1970s and 1980s.

There are, however, a number of questions worth asking about the scheduling and policing of the quarter-final between Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion.

Little more than a month after Merseyside Police failed in an attempt to move the derby match between Everton and Liverpool from the same Saturday time slot, the mass incursion onto the playing area appears to justify fears over "flashpoint games".

Objections to 5.30pm kick-offs by the authorities invariably come back to a single argument: Late starts allow both sets of fans to spend the afternoon drinking.

Ironically, it is hard to find a match-going supporter in favour of these late kick-offs.

Almost all would swop the opportunity for an extra couple of pre-match hours in the pub for a 3pm start.

An afternoon game gives local supporters the chance to do something different on a Saturday night and provides those with longer journeys to the stadium greater choice for transport. It is much more convenient at every level.

So, police don't want late kick-offs. Fans don't want them either.

The only ones who want games scheduling at this time are the TV companies and clubs who take the broadcasters' cash.

You can almost forgive the Premier League, with its "greed is good" image, for shuffling the fixture list around to maximise profit.

It makes no pretence about what it does.

The FA, though, is supposed to be the guardian of the game. The ruling body has moved its most important, showpiece event, the Cup final, to 5.30pm to suit television.

The game has sold its soul a million times but that deal was the most obscene in its breathtaking disregard for both supporters and tradition.

The role of police and stewards at Villa Park deserve scrutiny too.

The most disturbing element of Saturday night was the sight of seats being ripped up and flung from the West Brom section towards the home fans.

Given the level of surveillance at modern football grounds and the use of CCTV, the culprits should be easy to single out. Those who endanger others should be prosecuted and jailed.

Yet, all too often, the focus is in the wrong place.

Expect a clutch of banning orders for the pitch invaders but it would be better if the spotlight fell on the violent vandals hurling bits of plastic without concern for where they might land.

There were echoes of the 1980s in the way the police and stewards appeared fixated with the wrong issues and seemed frozen as events escalated. Even as it became clear that Villa fans were going to swarm onto the pitch, the majority of policemen were gathered in front of the away fans. When the rush on to the playing surface came, most stewards remained static.

It is hard to criticise them too much, given the level of training and pay they receive, but the ratio of police to stewards behind the North Stand goal looked hopelessly skewed.

It is worth analysing what happened at Villa Park but calmly and without the sort of hysteria that the incident has generated.

The starting point should be a simple question: What is best and safest for everyone in the ground? Unfortunately, the more likely query is this: What time is best for you to get the biggest ratings?

This article was first published on Mar 10, 2015.
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