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What is the Independent Football Ombudsman?

How many supporters know about the Independent Football Ombudsman (IFO)? Not enough. If a complaint to your club fails to get the response that you’d hoped for, then you need to speak to the IFO whose chief ombudsman is appointed by the Premier League, the FA and the EFL. 

Kevin Grix took on that role in January 2022 and we caught up with him to find out a little more about what the IFO is and why all fans should know about its role…

The FSA: Hi Kevin, thanks for your time – what are the main things that fans should know about the Independent Football Ombudsman?

Kevin: We’re effectively the final stage within football’s complaints procedure and we’re free to use. In terms of the process a supporter must complain to their club first and the club has six weeks from that point to resolve the complaint. If a deadlock is reached during that six week period, the club will say go to the ombudsman now as we’ve done everything we can.

Ombudsman schemes are independent, objective and outcome driven. Is the evidence available to allow me to make a decision? You lose more friends than you make doing that but it’s just my job! Ombudsman schemes are traditionally funded by the industry in which they operate which is sometimes criticised because people wrongly conclude that this could impede their impartiality. There are safeguards against that happening, and the funding means they’re free to use.

Tell us a little about your background and how you came into the role.

I actually started my career in retail and then went into banking for a large finance company, and then Betfair in football market operations, while I I returned to education and studied law (Kevin qualified as a barrister in 2008). I then went into the Furniture & Home Improvement Ombudsman as legal counsel – we stand over retailers such as DFS, SCS, M&S and so on.

After a few months there was restructure and I took on the CEO role and then, in 2014, a new ombudsman scheme was introduced – the Dispute Resolution Ombudsman. Lots of different companies sit under that like the BBC, the Performers Rights Society, Which?, DHL Parcels – and then in 2018 I was appointed as the first rail ombudsman.

I joined the IFO advisory panel in 2015 and gave advice to the organisation around alternative dispute resolution – an alternative to a court or a formal tribunal – before taking on the role of chief ombudsman in 2022.

Although the industries and mindsets are all different the nucleus of the job is the same – two parties are in dispute and we have to look at how to bring those parties together. If that can’t be done then we have to sit as a judge and make a decision if the evidence warrants it.

And how do you try to bridge that divide between two parties in disagreement?

You have to narrow down the complaint. What does the person want to rectify the problem? Can we get to a place where we can resolve this? Sometimes parties agree on stuff that they don’t even know they agree on – and we have a big team with a lot of skills. 

Do you typically get more complaints when teams are struggling?

We’ve actually invested in a new case management system which is in beta testing but will be able to look at all the issues at play when a complaint comes in. We’ll be able to work out the psychology and wider context of a complaint – how is their team performing and is it even relevant? What was the weather like? How far has the supporter travelled? 

Maybe the fan is angry as they’ve travelled two hundred miles, their team has played terribly, and then an issue has arisen that’s led to a complaint. If you know more about circumstances it can help the parties unpick it. Additionally the supporter will be able to log into the system with a secure password and get updates on how their case is progressing and interact with us through the portal. 

And do you just deal with things case-by-case or does the IFO have a more strategic role too?

Yes it’s case-by-case but the more you see the more you know and a good ombudsman scheme can start to identify systemic issues. Through the IFO’s future annual reports we’ll begin to talk about what we’ve seen and make recommendations for improvement. 

For example, the FSA has sat on club appeals panels and been part of that process. Why doesn’t every top-flight club have something like that in place? The new EFL sanctions guidance is very positive. The perception of fairness is really important as, if you feel an appeals process is unfair, the outcome will likely also be perceived as being unfair. 

And what doesn’t the IFO cover? Can we complain if our club signs a rubbish centre forward?

We have no on-the-field influence and no jurisdiction over ownership! Most of our complaints relate to fans who’ve been banned or sanctioned, ticketing issues like complaints over restricted views. Also a bit of merch and consumer law stuff and we also receive some complaints over the behaviour of other supporters. But we’ll always try and help people where we can even if we don’t have jurisdiction – it’s not about slamming the door in someone’s face because you can.

And how many supporters actually get in touch over a year?

Kevin: In 2022 we had hundreds of contacts and investigated 250 cases to some degree. Some of those were out of scope, some settled amicably, others were lacking in evidence and a few progressed to a full adjudication which we have published online. I think that is up from around 30-40 in the past, so it’s still relatively small but it’s grown a lot. Collectively across the different sectors I work in, I probably have oversight of 10-15,000 decisions per year – but if you play the piano a lot you get better at it – so volume of cases isn’t a problem because it provides learning too. I have great support around me – and we’re all huge football fans. 

And if an incident occurs at the match which you’re unhappy with, what should you do?

Kevin: Stop and think – can this be dealt with at the time, bringing things to a resolution there and then? If something goes wrong then notes and evidence will help you if you need to make a complaint. Everyone has a mobile phone nowadays and in some circumstances it might be appropriate for supporters to equip themselves with the evidence in case they need it in future. I know its hard in the heat of the moment – but we are evidence-led, so the more information that a supporter can provide to us to support their version of events, the better.

Lastly, we can’t leave this without asking – who do you support?!

I went to my first Manchester United game in 1991 and became hooked, Bryan Robson and Mark Hughes were big idols of mine. Then, of course, Eric in the 90s. I missed the Champions League finals in Barcelona and Moscow but made it to Rome and Wembley in ‘09 and ‘11 and still get along whenever I can. 

My deputy is a huge Barnsley supporter and has held season tickets at Oakwell and at Stevenage near where she lived and brought up her children. Our club and supporter contact manager grew up on the terraces of Highbury where she used to go with her dad – and our caseworker is a season ticket holder at Watford.

Having the mix of legal, complaint handling and match day experience really helps us.

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