Whoever Said Its A Funny Old Game

By Dan Buxton
Last updated : 24 September 2009
This week has seen a number of events that really have defined the term irony.

Take Tuesday night, we beat a decent Blackpool outfit in the final minutes after
dropping points ourselves in the same time frame in the last two league games.

The next ironic event was the invite made by the Greater Manchester Police to
The Fans' Forum to observe the policing operation at the Bolton game, which has
subsequently kick-started another series of investigations for the Football
Supporters Federation and The Fans' Forum. This visit was organised as part of
the building bridges campaign that Stoke and the GMP had been publicising only
days before the match. The new Assistant Chief Constable, Ian Hopkins, had
offered the proverbial olive branch after the Section 27 debacle last season and
we were duly invited to shadow the policing operation and ask any questions.

I arrived at the ground at 11:45am.  I more or less waltzed straight through the
main reception at The Reebok without any identification and past 5 security
guards who briefly asked where I was from and after I told them, there were
several puzzled looks, to which I said that I needed to report to the control
room and one then duly escorted me up the two flights of stairs and around
several corridors to meet the match commander.

I walked straight into a briefing of the bronze commanders who would lead the
sections of the operation, there was also the football intelligence officer from
Staffordshire Police who was present. Various intelligence reports were read
out, including the whereabouts of the known 'risk' fans from spotting teams,
which pubs they were drinking at and the numbers of fans who were coming in via
coach and train were given. The location of the away fans in the ground was laid
out and interestingly enough it was reported that Stoke had asked for the full
allocation of 5000 and only 2900 had been granted by Bolton. There was also
figures given for the number of fans who have been given football banning orders
and Bolton have more fans with banning orders than Stoke, 49 to our 48.

From there I was taken with the match commander to another briefing in the
section behind the home goal, on the way to this briefing I was told that
assessors were present to look at the operation and the policing staff that day.
This briefing was delivered to all the officers who would be on patrol inside
and outside the ground. A powerpoint presentation was given about where they
were to be located, how they were not to huddle into groups, how they were to
smile and engage with the fans as well as various evacuation points etc. The
police were also given the names of pubs to point home and away fans into should
they be asked and after a certain time, they were to direct any people who
asked, into the ground. Several officers were also to be located inside Tesco to
ensure no alcohol was to be served to either set of fans. The most salient bit
of information I took from that briefing was that the game was classed as a
category 'C' which was a high risk game, in actual fact there is no
classification above 'C'.

I was then taken on a tour of the inside and outside of the ground by the
football liason officer to look at the various points where the police were
deployed and I took this opportunity to ask my guide about why the game had
received the highest classification. I was told that classifications were based
on intelligence reports and past history. Due to the various hotspots of trouble
last season in the town centre this was determined to be a category 'C' fixture.
I then asked about the Section 27 incidents in Irlam last season and what the
police thought about this. I could tell from the response that treading
carefully was the order of the day for that particular question, maybe
understandably so, given the reason we were there. I also asked about balancing
the day-to-day policing and maintaining order at the game and was told that
every police officer who polices a football match is on overtime, this ensures
that no police are taken away from normal duties.

I was then taken up to the control room to meet the operatives in there. As well
as the match commander, there was the head steward, safety officers, ambulance
operatives, employees of the highways agency, CCTV operators and senior police.
Just outside the control room was the head of the car parking stewards
positioned with a radio by the window. From his lofty perch  he could easily
oversee the car parks and was ensuring that cars were being parked safely and
buses were parked in the correct locations by stewards to ensure they got away
as quickly as possible.

As the fans started to pour in, the CCTV operators were scanning the concourses
and the entrances to the ground and the bustle in the control room started to
increase. After kick off, the control room was a hive of activity and constant
radio transmissions were being received and sent around the ground. There were
also several people with binoculars in the control room looking around the
ground in addition to the CCTV operators.

The first issue came about 10 minutes into the game. There were several people
sitting in the window of one of the hotel bedrooms that back onto the stadium.
CCTV showed some of the occupants smoking, drinking and making gestures to the
fans sat in front of the window. Stewards were called to have a word with them.
Their behaviour calmed down after that, however, maybe not realising that a
sharp eye was being cast over them, no more that twenty minutes later, one of
them was seen drinking from a champagne flute. Police officers were dispatched
to the room and a final warning was given and no further problems came from
then.

There were several reports of coins being thrown about 30 minutes in and
unfortunately 1 arrest of a Stoke fan for this offence was made.

During the half time interval, some officers were briefed again in the control
room about the operation thus far and the head steward said that about 16,800
people had come through the turnstile. The overall attendance figure would be
much higher as a lot of people who had a ticket, either through purchase that
week or season ticket holders, had not turned up.

The second half was realtively without incident, there was a few gestures being
made between the two sets of fans at the divide after Bolton scored their late
equaliser, but that was about it.

After the full-time whistle I was then showed outside the control room to the
window where the head of the car parking stewards had been before the match.
Several police officers were watching through this window as the only crossover
point between home and away fans was at this section of the ground. I could also
see perfectly, the parking operation in full flow. From the control room, two
employees of the highways agency had two CCTV cameras and a small control box
the size of a cereal packet. From there they were manually controlling the
sequence of lights at the roundabout to ensure that traffic got away from the
ground as quickly as possible. It was a remarkable sight, in the 24 minutes
after the final whistle, all away coaches, home coaches and 30 local double
decker buses had left the ground and there was only a handful of cars left on
the car parks. Why our council cannot adopt such an idea with the A50 roundabout
and the junction at Trentham by Aldi I shall be asking at the next meeting of
the Fans' Forum.

The game had gone by with little incident. 1 person was arrested in the ground
as mentioned before, 4 Stoke fans and 2 Bolton fans were ejected for smoking.
That was the sum total of the category 'C' game. I came away with the belief
that the operation at the ground was rather a slick one, the traffic management
certainly was.

Imagine my disbelief, dissapointment and shock when I then hear about the
incidents that took place with the 400 travelling away fans that got on the
train at Horwich Parkway. I could not help but feel that somehow I had wasted
the long day I had and that for this to come only several days after reports
that Stoke and the GMP were building bridges is quite, quite remarkable.

I really do not want to say too much about this at present for fear of saying
something that may jepordise any enquiry into the incident, I will keep everyone
involved who has contacted me updated as and when I am able and the same goes
for all Stoke fans.

Once again I implore anyone who was there and has any reason to complain to do
so via the link on the GMP website, sending a copy to the Fans' Forum,
chairman@stokecityfansforum.org.uk and the Football Supporters' Federation
info@fsf.org.uk

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