Football needs to act before we suffer another tragedy

If another major football catastrophe is to be avoided, then UEFA, the FA, the police, clubs and supporters must all learn lessons from the horrific scenes witnessed at the Champions League Final last weekend.

Frank McKenna

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In a blog I posted on social media channels last week I reflected on the fact that it was the 37th anniversary of the Heysel Stadium disaster, where 39 Italian football supporters were killed prior to Juventus’ European Cup Final with Liverpool.

Undoubtedly, the behaviour of the minority of savage hooligans who caused those deaths was despicable. But so too was the fact that the stadia was unfit for purpose (Liverpool FC had expressed its concerns before the game), the organisation and security in and around the ground was inadequate, and ultimately each and every one of those deaths was avoidable, had the authorities done their jobs properly.

I had written the piece on the back of a number of pitch invasions that had taken place in England at the end of relegation battles, a Premier League win, and play-off finals. As ever, the vast majority of supporters who ran onto the pitch did so to simply celebrate their team’s victories. However, inevitably, there were a smattering of moronic thugs who decided to use the crowd as a shield to attack or goad opposition players and managers. I argued that, should those situations continue to occur, then something very serious was likely to happen.

Little did I imagine that, through a combination of poor organisation by UEFA, and over- zealous French policing, we would be literally a wing and a prayer away from yet another football tragedy being written into the history books at the Stade de Paris.

It was as if nothing had been learned by those who run football from the experiences of Heysel and Hillsborough. The pepper spraying of fans and tear gassing of fans, including young kids and the disabled, along with the mindless funnelling of large numbers of supporters into confined spaces, causing unnecessary crushing due to the fact that gates had not been opened, is quite unbelievable.

Had UEFA officials been as focussed on supporter safety as they were the pre-match entertainment, which nobody in the ground watched, then everyone in Paris would have had a much better experience. Still, the television viewers were happy.

Mobile phones mean that it will be nigh impossible for the authorities to embark on the type of cover-up that we saw over Hillsborough, although it hasn’t stopped them trying.

Nevertheless, an apology, and a pat on the head to match goers is wholly inadequate, and this time lessons must be learned, and solutions implemented in the future.

As I argued last week, football clubs must invest more into stadium security on match days. Minimum wage stewards are not a strong enough deterrent for those who come to matches with a pre-meditated determination to cause trouble, shout racist abuse, or physically attack someone.

However, on the back of the Champions League Final, supporters’ groups, and football clubs too, need to be providing stronger messaging around fans behaviour – even those who go to games for the right reasons.

We should not suggest that it is OK to invade a football pitch, no matter how euphoric the fan base is. I was as guilty as anyone for defending Evertonians who charged onto Goodison Park after the Crystal Place game last month, but in hindsight, I was wrong. How much better of an occasion would that have been had everyone stayed in their seats, and the players could have done a lap of appreciation, enjoyed by all those who were in Goodison Park?

We should, absolutely, discourage fans from travelling to games without tickets. To do otherwise is totally irresponsible and leaves fans open to exploitation by ticket touts outside of the stadium, creates frustration for those who do have tickets and are being delayed because people are trying to ‘bunk in’, and offers the authorities ample opportunity to shift the blame for their own inadequacies.

Of course, ticket allocation should be fairer for cup finals. But even an additional 20,000 tickets for Liverpool fans on Saturday evening would not have satisfied demand.

There must also be a review of ‘fan zones’ now too. One of the key reasons why fans travel to games without tickets is because of the ‘party’ they can have pre-match. The removal of the party would disincentivise many – not all- of those ticketless supporters.

It is a shame that, at the end of what has been a great season of football in so many respectss, we are once again reduced to talking about crowd control.

However, it could have been worse. And, unless the authorities, clubs, and supporter’s groups act now, its only a matter of time before it will be.

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