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Football ombudsman gives “no adequate protection” for fans

This is a story from the FSF archive – the FSF and SD merged to become the FSA in 2019.

The Independent Football Ombudsman (IFO) is the last port of call for fans who believe they’ve been treated unfairly by their club. So you’d think clubs would have to act on his adjudications, wouldn’t you? Well, you’d be wrong. The FSF’s caseworker Amanda Jacks explains more…

As a consumer of anything from electricity to Eccles cakes you’re afforded protection by the law and recourse to regulatory bodies such as Ombudsmen.  As a season ticket holder of a football club you have very little protection. Yes, you have a contractual relationship with your club but one that’s heavily weighted against you; for example you can find yourself banned with no hope of getting a refund for games missed. The T&Cs allow for this. 

So, when you do have cause to complain, what is the process?

Firstly you go to the club and if they can’t resolve your issue you take it to the relevant League and if you’re still seeking answers your final stop is The Independent Football Ombudsman. All well and good in theory, except the IFO has no power to ensure that his recommendations are carried out by the clubs, something Arsenal fan Mick Doherty discovered recently to his cost.

He doesn’t have a perfect history, although the IFO points out that 10 years have elapsed since his last football related conviction. For a decade he kept out of trouble until he became involved in a fight in a pub in November 2012.

The IFO reports: “The gathering in the pub did not take place for football reasons, the disturbance took place some 6 hours after the Arsenal v Spurs match had finished, the venue was some distance away from the stadium and the argument which produced the fighting was not about football.”

Mick duly pleaded guilty to a public order offence but was not given a civil Football Banning Order (FBO) despite the police wanting to submit an application. In short, after legal argument by Mick’s counsel that the offence was not football related, the application was withdrawn.

Thereafter the Police approached Arsenal directly with concerns that Mick was a threat to public safety due to his conviction and recommended the club ban him. This they did for an indefinite period although later set a five year timescale for review. Mick was deeply unhappy at this and invoked the complaints system with his case ultimately being referred to the IFO. 

You can read the IFO adjudication in full here. It was recommended that the ban be suspended after two years although there was an acknowledgement that the club have the right to risk assess Mick’s return based on police advice and other evidence.

Broadly speaking, Mick was happy with the outcome and expected to return to the Emirates in 2015. Until, that is, he was informed by a journalist from the Islington Gazette that Arsenal intended to ignore the IFO’s recommendation that the ban be lifted after a two year period and would not review it until 2018.

A spokesman for the club stated: “In our view, the five year ban is entirely appropriate. It is based on police evidence and advice and nothing has changed in our joint assessment to make us alter our approach.”

It’s worth noting here that had a FBO been imposed on Mick following his conviction, it’s highly likely that it would have been for a three year period and Mick could have applied to the court after two years to have it terminated.

It’s open to debate, but if the police had enough evidence to persuade Arsenal to ban him, why they didn’t use that evidence for an FBO application?  However, a football club is private property and, legally, they have the right to refuse access to anybody they like. You don’t have a “right” to attend a football match if the club management don’t want you there.

Mick’s case is just one of many that has crossed my desk in recent months.

In my experience it is becoming increasingly common for clubs to issue bans when courts don’t deem them necessary, or even when a supporter has been arrested but not charged, or charged and found not guilty. How much influence should the police have on who clubs admit? They can “lose” in court and then get the clubs to impose a banning order by the back door.

Mick’s case isn’t the only one where a club have ignored an IFO adjudication. Back in 2011, then Chairman of the Saints Trust, Nick Illingsworth, was refused the right to buy a season ticket. Unable to seek resolution, his case went to the IFO. 

After a thorough investigation in which evidence from both sides was considered, Nick’s complaint was upheld with the IFO finding that he’d been “singled out for special treatment” by the club. In a damning report the IFO suggested that “perhaps this is to set an example and to deter other critics of the club’s (then) management”.

Ultimately his recommendation that Nick be allowed to buy a season ticket was ignored by Southampton who knew they’d face no sanction for their refusal to adhere to the IFO adjudication. 

This begs the question: Should football fans, as both consumers and in a contractual relationship with their club, be afforded the same protection they are in some other industries? Should there be a regulatory body with teeth, which can force the clubs to uphold their adjudications?

I can see the grey area in all of this. If a court of law doesn’t have the power to force a football club to open its doors to somebody they don’t want on their property, then why should a regulator be given that power? Then again, we’ve seen clubs act as judge, jury, and executioner at the behest of police, and that can’t be fair.

Reading the Premier League’s Handbook, there are pages and pages of guidelines and rules about a club’s obligation and responsibilities towards their players, and given employment legislation that is only right and proper. Yet supporters’ rights are left at the whim of their club, which is fundamentally wrong given the financial and emotional investment – often lifelong – that a fan invests.

Why should a football supporter be left with no effective protection when clubs often take an authoritarian approach, with a default position of punishment and bans?

This isn’t an argument to say clubs shouldn’t deal with problematic supporters, but they should follow the basic tenets of justice with a system in place, league-wide rules, and an effective ombudsman. Quite simply, football supporters should not be the only “consumers” in society without adequate protection.  

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