Last night Fulham's Craven Cottage stadium hosted the international friendly between Ghana and Brazil. As friendlies go, this was a particularly enticing prospect, with the likes of Ronaldinho and Neymar on show to people who perhaps haven't had chance to see them play live before. Not to mention chance for London's sizable Ghanaian community to see the Black Stars in action against the most famous international team in the world.
It was a good game. However, I am extremely surprised that most of the talk in today's media is about events on the pitch and the cracking atmosphere in the stands. Both of these things are true, but far more pressing is the potential disaster that could have occurred outside the stadium pre- (and even post-) kick-off.
The crux of the problem was that lots of people had ordered tickets in advance for the Ghana end of the stadium (largely the Putney Stand), for collection at the ground. And by "lots" I mean hundreds. These tickets were being dished out from two small hatches (surnames A-L and M-Z). Said hatches were manned by four people at most. The process of dishing out tickets was astonishingly slow, and there was virtually no police or security presence managing the crowd until it became evident that a significant crush was starting to occur.
As kick-off approached, it became clear that we would not be witnessing the moment. In fact, we did not enter the stadium until the 32nd minute after an exhausting amount of queuing, jostling and trying to reason with club staff and security. We weren't the only ones. People were still coming in as half-time approached. The first thing we saw as we walked in was the referee showing a red card to a Ghana player – a key turning point in the game. I've no idea what it was for.
This excellent eyewitness account by Headers & Volleys does a superb job of describing the widespread disorganisation and disarray outside and inside the stadium that hundreds of people experienced. (I also noticed a dismissive attitude towards the fans from several staff members.) I urge you to read this piece from start to finish, because every single point the article makes is important. This passage of text is particularly salient:
"With such shocking organisation and ridiculously poor planning, with another, more aggressive group of fans, the outcome could have been drastically different in the stands yesterday night. Thankfully for everyone, the Ghanaian fans just wanted to sing and dance."
It is to the Ghana fans tremendous credit that they remained largely calm and composed during last night's farce. Yes, there was some frustrated shouting, a few arguments here and there. But I didn't see anybody who had genuinely lost control. What I did see was a few frightened looks on people's faces, and one or two small children clutching their father's hand in the crowds by the ticket collection windows. There were three of us in our group, so myself and one other managed to worm our way out of the crowd, leaving the other to queue. It seemed the only course of action, lest two extra bodies contribute to the problem that was building.
Thankfully, as far as I'm aware, nobody got hurt. But I can't believe I've even felt the need to write a piece like this today. I'm stunned that Headers & Volleys have had to document at such length what a complete and utter shambles occurred. But it's to their great credit that they have, and I sincerely hope that Fulham FC treat their complaints with the seriousness they deserve. One of my party is also writing to complain.
And yet, perhaps we should have seen this coming? A couple of years ago I went to a European tie at Craven Cottage versus Roma. A similar – albeit much smaller scale – queuing debacle took place that night. One that you'd file under "irritating" rather than "deeply concerning". I wrongly assumed this must have been a one-off and that the club would learn the lessons from it.
However, not so. Here's Two Footed Tackle's Gary Andrews, with an account of a Europa League tie featuring NSI Runavik that he attended at the Cottage: "I arrived about 15 minutes before kick-off to find absolute chaos outside the ticket collection booth – just two people on the desk of lots of people queuing. They'd sent out tickets for various surnames with assorted staff and stewards, and people were having to find the relevant person."
He then goes on to describe a situation which is similar to that experienced by Headers & Volleys and also by my group last night: "There was a bit of a crush to get in and we missed the start of the game. When we eventually got into the stand there were people already in our seats and they had tickets for the same seats. Fortunately there were several seats a few rows forward, so we quickly snaffled these. It was a bit of a free-for-all and a bit chaotic," says Andrews.
What has become apparent today then is that this was a problem that has happened before. It remains a disaster waiting to happen. Has English football learned nothing at all from Hillsborough and other football crush scenes? Aren't there supposed to be security measures and protocols in place to prevent all this antiquated nonsense these days?
Several things need to happen in the wake of Monday night:
- Craven Cottage must not stage another one-off game of this nature until it has completely overhauled and modernised its ticketing system.
- Authorities must meet with officials from the club to learn lessons. This is a bare minimum to avoid a possible disaster in future, especially given Fulham's presence in the Europa League group stage. Can we be sure that fans of Twente, Odense and Wisla Krakow will respond as calmly to a potential crush as the Ghana fans did last night? Are Fulham seriously just going to wait and see how it pans out? The police were rather slow to the scene last night too. Who was in charge of their operations last night? These questions need to be asked.
- The Football Supporters Federation must take a close look at what happened too. I hope that they can use their influence to ensure Headers & Volleys' complaint is treated with the gravitas it merits.
One can only hope that weeks, months or years from today Fulham FC and the police are not looking back at Headers & Volley's blog and thinking "Why didn't we learn the lessons from all of this?".
For now, my only advice to those thinking of buying tickets for a match at Craven Cottage would be: get your tickets posted in advance, arrive early and keep a cool head if there's somebody in your seat when you get to it.
Fulham have not heeded the danger signs that have been abundantly clear in the past. This is surely either pure neglect or a refusal to spend money on correcting the problem. How much did that Michael Jackson statue cost again?
They simply have to act this time.