Mr. John Mothersole,
Sheffield City Council,
Dear Mr Mothersole,
Sheffield Wednesday Football Club
I am writing to complain in the strongest terms about the restrictions which have recently been imposed at Hillsborough, allegedly in the name of safety, and your recent critical comments about Sheffield Wednesday. I believe that the measures are completely unnecessary but, much more important, are now seriously increasing the safety risks at the football ground. I understand that the prohibitions are as a result of the report from Manchester Metropolitan University dated 30th May 2019 and I have studied this report.
I would like to make the following points:-
1 1 I do not accept that there is any direct relationship between the actions being taken now and the tragic disaster of 1989. 1989 was about entrance to the stadium and correct spreading of spectators in a safe way. The current issue appears to be about leaving the stadium. With the results of the Taylor report fully implemented, Hillsborough has seats all around the ground, no fences restricting emergency egress to the pitch or between areas of the ground and has an increased number of turnstiles at Leppings Lane where the concourse was enlarged by moving the wall with the turnstiles closer to the ground. So entering the ground should have been dealt with.
Indeed, since the tragedy, Hillsborough has been selected to host an FA Cup Semi-final (5/4/1992), an FA Cup Semi-final replay (2/4/1997), a League Cup Final Replay (16/4/1997), the Euro ’96 finals and Premier League games for 9 years. Crowds have often been in the upper 30 thousands and on occasion, over 40,000. To my knowledge, there have not been any serious safety breaches in that period.
I do appreciate that, following such a tragedy, authorities will wish to be extremely careful that safety is paramount at the club but to impose such draconian and questionable measures so suddenly when nothing else has changed seems to be completely unjustifiable.
2 2 I have been attending football matches as Hillsborough since 1955 and from 1961, when the North Stand was built, our family has held season tickets in the North Stand. I have always entered and left the ground via Leppings Lane and have never experienced any “egress” issues other than recently (see points below).
3 3 Dealing with the behaviour of small sections of a crowd who seem to be disruptive is a related but separate topic. It is quite noticeable that, in recent years, the police have become more and more aggressive towards spectators attending football matches, in some cases almost challenging people going to the game which has made me, now in my 70s, feel increasingly uncomfortable. Around 5 years ago, after the game had finished, they also started putting a human barrier of police across the entrance to the Leppings Lane concourse and again further up Leppings Lane, dramatically reducing the flow of spectators as they leave the ground and thereby creating an egress issue. This adversarial approach has not helped the police to have the respect of the vast majority of the spectators and has actually made egress from matches much more difficult. Football always attracts some fighting between a small minority and the police need to deal with this but, just like in 1989, the adopted approach seems that dealing with trouble makers is still the main focus of the policing. I have to assume that the changes and the approach of police officers is part of a management strategy and not determined by individual officers.
4 4 I was at the football match against Sheffield United on 4/3/2019 and entered and left the ground via Leppings Lane. Even on entering the ground, the police were in their most antagonistic mood ever and it was not pleasant. When we came out of the ground, the police almost blocked our way out. Some minor fighting started and the police appeared to over-react so rather than containing the situation it made it much worse. I made a hasty exit as the police were behaving like commandoes. The issue that day was not about how many people the concourse could hold or how quickly the crowd could disperse. It is whether the tactics of the police deliberately to restrict the size of the concourse and deliberately to reduce the rate spectators could leave by having rows of police restricting the exits and by the adoption of an over aggressive attitude was the correct approach or whether such policies should be changed.
5 The report by the University does not appear to be dealing with what actually happened on that day or addressing a problem which exists. The management of the crowd after the match was the subject of complaints from both football clubs and from supporter groups from both clubs. It would appear that the primary objective of the report is to prove that the fault lies entirely with the design of Hillsborough stadium and not with the police. In my opinion, the theory applied in the report is substantially flawed and if it were applied to all the football grounds in the Premier League and Football Championship, many grounds would be found wanting including Bramall Lane in Sheffield. The report totally ignores three critical points relevant to the theories applied:-
a. In the past 3 years, a barrier has been erected in the concourse area at Leppings Lane to separate the home and away supporters. This has reduced the people capacity in the concourse.
b. The police in the past 5 years or so have adopted an approach of almost barricading the exit from the concourse to Leppings Lane using officers and again have done the same towards the top of Leppings Lane close to the junction with Catch Bar Lane. This has seriously reduced the egress flow rate from the ground, in effect deliberately backing up people into the concourse area.
c. The aggressive approach of police officers which is likely to be encouraging an aggressive response from sections of the crowd coming out of the stadium.
6 6 The recent decision to prevent any supporters from the home club entering or leaving the ground via Leppings Lane has the potential to create safety issues which were not previously present. The North Stand in particular was designed for entry and exit from both sides of the structure not just onto Penistone Road. As the Manchester report advises, further analysis was recommended before summary action was taken.
7 7 The effect on crowd numbers in the North Stand, a structure designed to hold 10,000 but with a current capacity of 9,255 following modifications to improve the width of gangways and provision of a disabled area is that it is now being restricted to well below the current capacity. This is to a football stand which many consider to be an absolute icon of cantilever design and the only football stand still in use to feature in Pevsner’s Buildings of England. As a user of the stand ever since it was built, I have never seen any issues with crowd safety in this stand although the decision to restrict access to one side is now creating a risk.
8 8 The application of the new prohibition order appears to be quite ridiculous when applied at recent games against Luton (20th August 2019) and QPR (31 August 2019) when the number of visiting spectators was low. At the game on 31st August, there was a crowd of 23,446 (less than 60% of the ground capacity) with no more than 700 from the visiting team. On the 20th August, a crowd of 23,353 included even less away supporters. But at both these games, nearly everyone had to leave the ground via Penistone Road after the game although the home and away supporters then mixed together as they made their various journeys home. It has also been noticeable that there have been significantly less police on duty outside the ground and I wonder if cost saving is what is actually driving the new policy?
I believe the decisions taken based on the report are seriously flawed and should be immediately re-considered. As pointed out above, the report misses key policies adopted by the police which have seriously affected the used of the Leppings Lane concourse area and egress rates. As also pointed out above, if the theory used in the report were to be applied to all football clubs in the same way as Sheffield Wednesday, then major changes to their use would have to be made including Bramall Lane. And yet this theory is only being applied to one club. I would suggest that the following ideas are discussed in detail:-
A A That the current restrictions are abandoned except for matches where the away supporters are expected to exceed a certain number. Applying a permanent restriction to the number of away supporters may be part of the discussion.
B B That matches with large crowds and large numbers of away supporters are not played in the hours of darkness. That these “major” matches and “derbies” are ideally played early in the day, either at 3.00 or potentially earlier and that consideration is given to the restriction of alcohol sales in the local area.
C C That the police abandon their policy of blocking the roads with officers thereby accelerating the movement of the crowd and the egress rates from the stadium.
C D That the police adopt a much more community approach to the vast majority of spectators at football matches while at the same time identifying and dealing with the small known groups of trouble makers.
E E That the authorities and SAG work closely together to find better ways of managing the stadium and safety rather than what currently appears to be an extremely adversarial atmosphere between the club the City Council and the Sag.
On a final point, I find it a huge disappointment that the City of Sheffield does not celebrate the unique role of the City in the history of world football. We have the oldest club in the world (Sheffield FC), the second oldest club (Hallam FC), the oldest ground in the world (Sandygate), the oldest league ground in the world (Bramall Lane) and the 4th oldest club in the Football League(Sheffield Wednesday). AND Sheffield was the home for the first set of standard written rules for the game. We should have a national football museum and aim to become a destination for tourists from across the world. And issues between clubs and authorities in Sheffield should not be played out in the public eye and media. As the world City of Football, this should all be sorted out without the public or supporters knowing about it.
I welcome your comments.
Julie Dore – Leader of Sheffield Council
Dejphon Chansiri – Chairman Sheffield Wednesday
Stephen Watson – Chief Constable South Yorkshire Police
Clive Betts MP
Angela Smith MP
Dr. Alan Billings – South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner