It is a rather unprecedented move by a police force to make an apology directly to fans and facing the music in the way that they did was something that everyone at the meeting acknowledged.
The meeting started with Assistant Chief Constable Ian Hopkins talking through the tactics used by police forces to maintain order at football matches and then moved on to specifically deal with the issues from the Bolton game. Armed with CCTV footage from in and around the station we were played five minutes detailing various spots en route during the march. The Superintendent who was in charge of operations at the station on the day then talked about his experiences during the walk, in which he said he was happily chatting to Stoke fans and that from what he could see, people were free to leave the group at Victoria station and that people were also free to use the toilets at that point.
What was indicated was that the special train from Horwich Parkway was only notified to the commander by British Transport Police during half time so an operation had to be planned out in a very short space of time. There were quite a number of fans in town who had arrived for the Manchester derby a day previous plus there was also an orange order march that had taken place, so the decision was taken to find a route to the station other than through the town center.
The important factor was that there were about six known 'risk' supporters in the group of fans on the train and the order was given to "monitor" those. The Assistant Chief Constable said that clearly what happened was definitely not monitoring and that meetings had taken place to take people to task over this and he then apologised.
The floor was then opened to comments and questions and the people who had been involved in the incident then made specific comments about their experiences. They all said the same comment about the conduct of officers including bad language and physical aggression as well as detailing sections of their complaint. Ian Hopkins said that if proven to be the case the officers will be dealt with in the harshest manner and those people are not wanted as part of his team. Not much could be said about specific cases as they were currently under review by the professional standards body.
The Fans' Forum and FSF then asked questions about the train journeys, both why the train did not go directly into Manchester Piccadilly if it was a football special train and how it could be justified that so many people could be put into two carriages from a health and safety point of view. The response was that it was rail operator who decide the destination of the trains and the number of carriages offered to football supporters and the British Transport Police were responsible for the numbers who were in carriages. The Fans' Forum and FSF will be taking this up with the relevant bodies.
Malcolm Clarke made the point about the use of police vans tearing alongside supporters, sirens wailing and lights flashing, intimidating the group. The Superintendent said that the vans were necessary to ensure that oncoming traffic was not a danger to fans who were walking in the gutter and said that he did not recall the sirens being on. Malcolm then handed over 25 minutes of footage taken from a fans mobile phone which had been submitted to us in which sirens could clearly be heard and which showed two fans being dragged out of a toilet when the police said earlier that fans were allowed to use the toilet.
The Fans' Forum made the points about the type of policing used would create tensions where there were none and also asked if feedback from Staffordshire Police had been sought both prior and subsequent to the incident as they are the ones with the experience dealing with Stoke supporters on a regular basis. The GMP are set to contact Staffordshire Police about the incidents and on the day there were 6 officers from Stafforshire Police at the game and part of spotting teams. The question was then asked whether footage from the Wigan game in February 2000 was used as training material for officers and Ian Hopkins looked quite surprised and said that it wasn't, to which the reply came that it used to be. It was then confirmed that no such material was currently used.
This lead to a discussion about the opinions of Stoke fans with members of the police. Ian Hopkins said that if officers had previously been involved in disorder with Stoke fans then it is difficult to detatch from that when next in contact with the same club's fans. He said that Stoke did used to have a reputation and that breaking down perceptions was being worked on and in some cases hard to do. The Fans' Forum then said that if Ian Hopkins thought he had a problem on his hands with GMP officers perceptions of Stoke fans then that is nothing compared to the GMP's problems of breaking down perceptions of the GMP itself with Stoke fans. We then said that we have been to Merseyside twice this season with no issue at all and yet the first time we set foot on GMP soil this happens.
The proof of the pudding will be in the eating to coin a phrase and Ian Hopkins said that he would personally be dealing with events at Eastlands. Passing comment that one swallow does not make a summer, Ian Hopkins said that things would definitely improve, but we can only hope. We asked for a meeting between the Fans' Forum, FSF, Stoke and GMP before the match on Boxing Day and the GMP said they would make that happen.
Speaking after the meeting to the fans who were involved at Bolton who attended, all agreed that the overall outcome of the meeting was positive and that they felt better for it. Personally, I liked the noises that were being made by the police, but we need to see how effectively these are carried through, not only for the Manchester City game, as I expect officers to be well versed on the events at Irlam and Bolton, but past this. Only after several seasons without incident will I be confident that change has happened and not just cracks papered over.
An apology is a good way of having the last word and whilst it is welcomed, this will not be the end of the matter and those complaints received will be followed through to the end regardless of the meeting on Wednesday.