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The Independent Football Ombudsman – fit for purpose?

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Yesterday FSF caseworker Amanda Jacks wrote that the Independent Football Ombudsman (IFO) gave no adequate protection for fans, and called on clubs to follow “the basic tenets of justice” by giving the IFO more powers. Everton fan Richard Knights has complained to the IFO twice and wasn’t happy with the response.

Below, Richard gives his view on why he thinks the IFO needs to change…

The club takes away your season ticket? Stewards eject you from the ground? So what now? You do have the right of appeal to the IFO. Is it a fearless organisation that strikes terror into the hearts of the ruthless oligarchs that control so many football clubs or a toothless poodle that is there to give the pretence of justice and fairness? Read on.

Every football club has to have a Customer Charter that outlines their complaints procedure. In practice, as private organisations, their Ground Regulations allow clubs to return season tickets without explanation and cast supporters into eternal darkness. Some clubs have begun to operate an appeals process, but in many cases it isn’t impartial or independent and is run by club officials.

If you want to take the matter further the next stage is the Premier League Supporters Services or the Football League. That isn’t easy either because they don’t exactly encourage fans to complain, try the websites, information is buried away. If you do manage to contact the relevant department they are merely postboxes, they contact the club, they don’t investigate merely refer on your complaint to the IFO. By this stage most fans have given up.

The Independent Football Commission (IFC) was created in 2002 by the Premier League, Football League and the Football Association. It was charged with establishing a Code of Best Practice for clubs and to resolve complaints from fans. The IFC also had a wider remit to enquire into ticket prices, TV schedules, equality and diversity. It even held Football Forums around the country to listen to feedback from fans. In 2008 the IFC was replaced by the IFO with a much narrower remit to solely adjudicate on complaints. The same two commissioners Derek Fraser and Alan Watson transferred to the IFO.

Every justice system in every country claims to be totally fair, impartial and independent, the only way to verify the claim is to examine their judgements. In 2010 the Independent Manchester United Supporters’ Association (IMUSA) took several cases to the IFO. This was during the height of the ‘green and gold’ scarf protests against the Glazer Brothers. Fans complained about stewards illegally searching them, confiscating season tickets and then ejecting them from the stadium. When fans asked for video evidence under the Data Protection Act the club denied it ever existed or claimed it had been ‘lost’. Even the club conceded that fans only crime was to wear green and gold scarves, unfurl over-sized banners and sing anti-Glazer songs.

In one case the IFO supported the club’s version of events, based solely on the word of one steward. The IFO went to Old Trafford and spoke to club officials, but their only attempt to obtain a verbal account from the fan amounted to a second-hand summary of a phone conversation with the aggrieved fan’s wife!

IMUSA concluded that it would, ‘boycott the Independent Football Ombudsman until such time as his office demonstrates to us that they have adopted procedures that are transparently fair and based on the default assumption that fans making complaints to them are innocent of wrongdoing unless there is clear evidence to show otherwise.’

Has anything changed since 2010? I’ve taken two complaints to the IFO. Firstly in 2012 when Everton returned my season ticket after I’d campaigned against their plans to open a Free School. The club made spurious and unsubstantiated allegations against me, one in particular, that I’d caused havoc in the Everton Megastore was a complete fabrication, I had not been in there for over ten years. The Deputy Ombudsman met the club and I was informed that, ‘due to your militant campaign against the Free School you were the architect of your own downfall.’

Eventually I did get to meet the two Ombudsmen, Derek Fraser and Alan Watson. They didn’t seem particularly interested or engaged. Let’s just say that I had to repeat some of the salient points several times before they sank in, ‘No, I haven’t visited the Everton Megastore, ever, during the past TEN years.’ I also produced evidence from Kit Bag about the incident at the Megastore that supported my evidence and contradictory statements from club officials. They didn’t raise this with the club.

In their adjudication they repeated all the allegations made by the club without commenting on my evidence. Their default position was, the club doesn’t need to provide any evidence, just statements from club officials. Video evidence was allowed to elapse without the IFO questioning why. At a later stage, thanks to assistance from certain club officials, I did get my Customer Reference Number reinstated.

My second referral to the IFO was over the elections to the Everton Fans’ Forum. The club appointed delegates to the outgoing Forum chose the candidates, so anyone likely to pose any awkward questions was excluded. Not only that, the club announced who the successful candidates were but refused to release the voting figures. Incredibly the IFO didn’t see this travesty of democracy as a problem.

So what happens if the IFO does find in favour of a fan? In 2010 Nick Illingsworth the chairman of the Southampton Supporters’ Trust was refused the right to buy a season ticket, no explanation was given. He appealed to the IFO, after meeting the club they concluded that he had been, ‘singled out for special treatment’ by the club. The IFO suggested that, ‘perhaps this is to set an example and to deter critics of the club’s management.’ They recommended that Southampton apologise and reinstate his season ticket, the club refused to implement any of the IFO’s recommendations.

The most recent IFO adjudication concerned Arsenal fan Mick Doherty, the ‘Archway One’. In 2013 he received a five year stadium ban for a non-football related incident which took place in 2012. The IFO found that whilst the ban was ‘justifiable’ it should only last for two years but the club refused to implement the IFO’s proposal.

The IFO doesn’t publish details of responses from clubs to its adjudications so there is no way of determining the levels of compliance.

The IFO has an Advisory Panel to oversee its work and to give expert help, it is appointed by the two Ombudsmen. There is a supporters rep but he doesn’t seem to have any record of involvement in any fans’ organisation.

Getting ripped off with extravagant ticket prices, being thrown out of the stadium by over zealous stewards, clubs that refuse to listen – it’s all part of the fan experience. So an appeals process that doesn’t respect fans and is ignored by the clubs isn’t a massive surprise. The IFO is not fit for purpose, maybe it’s time for other organisations to join the Independent Manchester United Supporters’ Association and boycott the IFO until we get regime change.

Fans deserve better.

The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed are those of the author and they don’t necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn’t be attributed to the FSF.

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