Sunday 16 September 2012

Could football special trains make a serious comeback?

Supporters organisations and the British Transport Police have been looking carefully at bringing back Football Specials for some time. The balance between offering a comfortable and unthreatening environment for regular passengers and convenient transport for fans is creating tension and, frequently, arrests. 

In the 1970s and 1980s the dedicated matchday services were a commonplace method used to ferry fans to away games while attempting to contain hooliganism in a relatively controlled environment. 

At the height of hooliganism, spare carriages and redundant stocks of trains were used to transport huge numbers of fans to games. With firms such as the West Ham Inter City Firm and the Leeds Service Crew inciting violence on public trains, the more heavily policed football specials services evened out the balance of power between fans and authorities. But the specials became a hothouse for problems and were largely scrapped in the early 1990s as privatisation made organisation of services across the network harder. 

It came as a surprise then when then deputy chief constable Andy Trotter called for the regular re-introduction of chartered services in 2007. Trotter argued with the introduction of all ticket games, hooliganism is no longer the issue it once was for away travel. Afterall, why travel when you know you won’t be allowed in?

Intermittent meetings between BTP and representatives of Passenger Focus, Virgin Trains, the Association of Provincial Football Supporters Clubs, Network Rail, the Premier League and the Football Supporters’ Federation - collectively the Rail Football Forum (RFF) - since have resolved a partnership approach was needed to tackle the minority of disruptive fans. However, the round table discussions concluded that clubs needed to be involved in the services and agree to ban any fans misbehaving, a viewpoint which clubs appear reluctant to adopt.

There are some clubs who currently run irregular football specials including Arsenal, Chelsea, Bolton, Manchester United and Blackpool while the practice is commonplace on the public railway service in Germany. 
Passenger Focus’s rail director Ashwin Kumar the RFF is looking at group reservation systems and discouraging anti-social behaviour. “The difficulty in addressing some of the problems is the different perceptions of what is considered acceptable behaviour,” Kumar adds, saying even singing and chanting can be intimidating. 

RFF also looks to exchange information on problem gangs, highlight potential flashpoint fixtures and offer incentives such as special rail football tickets. 

Virgin Trains’ Train Chartering brochure reveals an upmarket option in football transport, complete with a “fillet of sea bass served on a provencale hash” for the peckish. Virgin has been working on a number of packages, including one with Chelsea offered via Thomas Cook Sport. Teams too are increasingly travelling via train to avoid onerous airport security.

Halfway measures, such as heavily policed services to the recent Johnstone's Paint Trophy final between Swindon and Chesterfield have also been welcomed by the Football Supporters' Federation. 
But, while there may be some enthusiasm from those in power, fans are more sceptical. Numerous anecdotes about being bombarded with abuse from home fans at stations and travelling on dilapidated rains are recounted in online forums.

Alcohol has become a critical issue in the debate. The Football Supporters Federation have lobbied train operators to clearly advertise when booze bans are in place well ahead of the fixture. If limited stocks of alcohol were introduced on board then specials may appeal.

Equally frustrating for fans is the fact that the cheapest, usually advance purchase, tickets have refund restrictions if the fixture is postponed. Increasing the flexibility of such tickets in exchange for individual fans signing up to a code of conduct is being considered by the RFF but train operators have shown little interest. 

Moreover, the idea that fans simply want to turn up to a game and be shepherded straight to the ground and back to the train is outdated. 

But there are bonuses, a good atmosphere can extend the experience beyond the ground and dedicated services offer a quick way to get home after the last regular train has left after night games. Moreover, opportunities to avoid the heavy traffic that dogs official coaches would be welcomed by fans.

The Rail Safety and Standards Board believes the network is under severe capacity constraints and big games such as cup finals offer the main avenue for specials. RSSB spokesman Matthew Clements says there are trains to hire from specialist operators but warns "this is an expensive business and the hirer, usually a football club or supporters body, has to carry the risk of a financial loss."

However the slow process of normalising specials again develops it is clear that it will take co-operation from rail operators, the police and football fans – something traditionally tough and complex to achieve.

Article originally appeared in Issue 303 of When Saturday Comes 

Hillsborough: An Owl's Eye View

The families of those Liverpool fans who lost their lives in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 finally received some form of justice with the release of papers which show that South Yorkshire Police covered their tracks and shifted blame for the tragedy on to fans this week. I thought I'd re-publish the short piece I wrote on the home of my beloved Owls in ShadowPlay #22.

Hillsborough, Sheffield Wednesday
A spiritual home of sorts some of the best afternoons of my life have been spent in the blue plastic seats of S6. All those names, few of quality calibre, to pass before my eyes on the programme – some heroes Carbone, Di Canio, Hirsty, Pressman, Brunt, McGovern, MacLean and some error-ridden but loveable – Bullen, Peaks, Di Piedi. 

A few times I’ve looked at the Leppings Lane end from the Kop and thought about all those people gasping for air down there and I’m appalled at myself for coming to this place for something so futile. But it’s an age gone by and soon I’m up and complaining about a foul throw or a bad pass and I realise it’s just a place of passion. 
It can be difficult sometimes when 99% of the population associates a place you cherish with something so horrific that the over-played images of that day remain unbearable. 
Offhand comment you may think but really, as with many disasters, some bad decisions, some indecisive ones, and the passion, which allows football to be the great game it is, prove some of the causes. Rest in peace to those who lost their lives.

Euro 2012 Final: An Italian View

It’s 10.40pm local time, a group of sublimely talented Spaniards are hugging and celebrating on an unsteady television set,  a group of all-too-sober Italians have disappeared into what has become just another Sunday night and the bar owner - dressed in a headache-inducing lime green t-shirt - surveys the debris of scattered chairs outside his empty establishment. It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
Or rather it was, but the Italians, as with the raucous Irish fans who saw their team soundly beaten by the same scoreline, dared to believe.
There was a nervous tension as soon as the television set was switched on at Bar Maguttiana, just 200 yards from the sea front in Forte Dei Marmi in Tuscany. It’s a small but rich town littered with designer shops and bejewelled pensioners on bicycles. Roman Abramovich is known to bring his yacht here from time to time, but tonight is all about carefully nurtured footballing talent, rather than the lavish spending that finally got him his Champions League dream win for Chelsea in May.
A small, overly tiled, badly lit affair, Bar Marguttiana stands on the corner of the street and boasts a TV precariously balanced on two wine boxes in front of several rows of tables in a sectioned-off part of the street. As kick-off looms, punters nab chairs from wherever they can and bait Mr Lime Shirt who looks nervous as his bar doubles in size to block the road. Not ones to dampen my hopes of fulfilled stereotypes, two lads in identical baby blue t-shirts with gelled hair ‘banter’ with some passing girls in dubious white jeans. A woman at the front in Italian colours is taking photos of her unimpressed looking husband, who looks not unlike Pat Butcher. No-one’s saying much, everyone is staring intently at Rai1’s build-up.
And my, what build-up - after healthy sponsors Nutella and McDonald’s have introduced the TV coverage, an anchor so rigid he makes Des Lynam look like Lee Evans introduces pictures from around the country. We get a voluptuous blonde (equivalent to their Cat Deeley) fronting a packed piazza in Rome, a baffled looking brunette (Claire Sweeney) trying to ignore rowdy fans in Milan and a lonely looking bloke (Claire Balding) sat at a desk with a small child.
In the bar, Buffon gets a round of applause for belting out the national anthem with his eyes shut Aled Jones-style, and back in the bar, one of the gel-heads and a bloke in a Fillipo Inzaghi shirt sing along. Directly before the match, there’s a montage which includes shots of the World Cup win in 1982, the Pope and bizarrely, an Olympic fencing win in the 1990s. It almost makes you proud of Eddie the Eagle.
And we’re off, and everyone leans forward intently. A guy with a Sideshow Bob haircut attempts a joke with Mr Lime Shirt only to get a stoney-faced response. The early exchanges look promising for Italy. De Rossi looks lively, Balotelli up for it and the passing is fluid. Hope in the bar begins to rise palpably, eyes widen and even the cameramen are too focussed on a tense encounter to pick out ladies in the crowd. The pundits bemoan Chiellini’s early exit through injury and their Lawrenson proclaims it a big loss, but unlike Lawrenson, he manages to disguise his contempt for the game. Cassano is implored by the fans to make more of an impact. Beside me, my girlfriend, enduring every second, makes friends with an artist from Florence - she’s here for the opening of an open air exhibition including her work on the same street.
Then Silva scores. A neat, powerful header meets the roof of the net with the air of a seagull arriving with familiarity at a chip shop. The bar collectively groans but one man, dressed in white like some evil messiah, shoots up to celebrate. The celebration lasts no longer than a snap of the fingers but the exposed Spaniard turns, apologises like a teacher who’s stubbed his toe and sworn to those behind him and shakes the hand of Inzaghi. 
What follows feels predictable. The Spaniards up the pressure but the Italians briefly stand firm, Pirlo executes a superb Moore-esque tackle that turns gasps of despair into delight. The second goal goes in, the Spaniard jumps up, this time exiting the street bar, instantly on the phone, presumably to his betting agent. The barmaid tries to cheer up some old timers near the back of the bar with a little song and a shimmy. She raises a smile from a bloke in tortoise shell glasses but nothing more.
With half time comes a rush of bum bags to the bar. A girl in sparkly hot pants with a giant alsatian has turned up and is attracting attention, while the dog chews on a bike tyre. Rai1 offers up two pundits - one of which looks like Gregg Wallace, though Torode has been replaced by Mike Bassett. Bassett focuses on Balotelli’s liveliness, Wallace mutters something, presumably echoing Bassett’s views or intimating a buttery biscuit base is in order. Several fans have already left to go home. The artist from Florence goes to meet a collector who has commissioned a piece of art with no remit - she’s as nervous as the football fans.
The atmosphere lifts with the second half, and the Italians begin to come into it more. The gel-heads in the bar gesticulate wildly at the Azzurri and the ‘ooooh’ that goes up when Balotelli clean misses the ball in the air could’ve been heard in the Vatican. Pirlo begins to take some control, duelling with Iniesta and Fabregas but to no avail. The hope begins to sap from the bar; Sideshow Bob has lost interest and skipped off elsewhere, Mr Lime Shirt is cleaning down the counter and even Inzaghi looks a beaten man. A few glimpses of hope are not enough as the third and fourth go in in quick succession, Fernando Torres bookending a torrid two years which began with a World Cup win with a goal few could begrudge him. The fourth is enough for the bar to deplete completely and when Sergio Ramos runs away from the goal smiling after a cheeky attempt to nip it in past Buffon, it’s a marker that the game is over. Tortoise shell takes a long slug of warm Becks, the ghost of the tumultous defeat to the French in Euro 2000 cannot yet be eradicated.
Italy put their all into an engaging encounter but there was never a way back after the first 45 minutes. The people of Forte Dei Maimi, muted, with flags painted on their faces smudged in the heat, trudged home through the town, dreading a Monday morning with added venom.
History is told by the winners, but tonight the losers offered at least glimpses of glory.
Article originally appeared on

Combating Nigeria’s Militia through Football, not Firearms

Let’s be honest, Taribo West’s hair was daft. The stern face and died plats never mixed convincingly, but he may just have saved lives in providing an inspiration for young Nigerian footballers throughout the last two decades (well, maybe not while at Plymouth Argyle).
Global charitable giant World in Need (WIN), a Christian organisation set up in the 1990s to help alleviate poverty, has been working closely with the Universal Centre for Child Care Health and Youth Development (UCCCHYD) in Nigeria to ensure it is icons like Taribo West, and not firearms, that inspires young men in the country.
The two bodies have been working together for some time, with WIN supporting work with the marginalised Hausa River people in Lagos providing food. It has also been operating a school in Port Harcourt as well as running HIV AIDS awareness courses for street children in Lagos and operating a community book shop.
Southern Nigeria has hit the headlines frequently of late after a spate of kidnapping which saw demands for huge ransoms put upon government, companies and domestic or foreign families. It is thought that the practice has directly adversely affected the economy in the region creating a rising number of unemployed, unemployable and frustrated youths.
“Many youths are no longer interested in education, more of them are now taking to a life of crime in order to live the ‘big life’ they desire,” says World in Need’s operations manager Mark Aldrich.
“To arrest the situation, our organisation has developed a project that is aimed at reducing restiveness, militancy and related crimes among the youths in the area. The project is using football training as means for mentorship in positive competitiveness and discipline.”
The partnership between WIN and UCCCHYD is centred around the village of Rumuosi within a wider Ikwere community near the Port Harcourt City area.
Following a proposal by WIN, a parcel of land measuring 200m square was loaned to WIN by the community leaders of the village. The first bushes were uprooted by local youths and before long they were divided into two teams and convivially arguing over who got to be Kanu. The project has given a sense of purpose, camaraderie and, perhaps most importantly, an activity to vent pent up boredom and aggression in a productive manner for those involved.
However, it has been far from easy, as Aldrich explains. “The difficulties have occurred in teaching the ethos of teamwork and discipline needed to be a successful team, and curbing the natural enthusiasm the participants have for football,” he says.
“But, while gun culture is a very real problem, at least kidnapping is less of one as the coaches are from the area and so not associated with Western Oil Companies.”
And the partnership is now on a small but straightforward mission – attaining a steamroller. The lack of suitable land has lead to some frustration among players, coaches, and fans alike. It also increased the risk of injury although no-one expects an Emirates-like playing surface.
“Our training field does not have a smooth surface and is usually waterlogged whenever it rains,” says Aldrich. “Because this happens quite often, it leaves us without a venue to train on for several days a week especially during the rainy season which runs between April and September – this often proves a source of discouragement to the teams.” 
Aldrich and Nigerian WIN country director Tope Ajanaku are targeting £4,700 to landscape the ground to prevent waterlogging and a gold course mower to keep the playing surface in check.
Ultimately, it is hoped that the project can help prevent wider social issues around the use of guns, the rise in violent crime and unemployment long term. In the short-term, it may just be the kick around that saves a life.
Article originally appeared on

Lost causes: Football charities

Flash forward ten years and amateur football is entirely removed from its working class routes – watched and played exclusively by middle class, privileged players and its use as a salvation from lives of boredom, low self-worth and violent crime is shredded. This is a very real threat to the game. 
The drastic reduction of cash from Government outside the very top of the game is strangling the life from all we can boast about it to its doubters. 
The third sector is feeling the strain after the huge deficit created by the global economic downturn triggered drastic action from Government. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations estimates that by 2015-16 the voluntary sector will lose £911m in public funding.
The UK sporting charity sector is remarkably fragmented with the likes of The Football Foundation and Football Aid representing the larger players in a wonky pyramid featuring professional club’s charitable arms, corporate philanthropic projects, small-scale grassroots organisations and long-standing local government initiatives. 
This diverse area of the game stretches from the Liverpool Homeless League’s work to improve the lives and health of local youth hostel inhabitants to Woking Minders FC’s help with mental health issues and substance abuse. Moreover, cash is needed to create pitches, erect goals and build changing facilities for young players. 
On the surface, funding options are plentiful. Cash from The Big Lottery Fund, The Premier League, The FA, local councils and multinational charities is all available to football charities but, in reality, the funds are drying up quickly as sports minister Hugh Robertson, who is reportedly directing all his time and resources towards this summer’s London Olympics, chops finance to all areas of community football initiatives. 
The Football Foundation, which funds of over 1,500 community schemes from a pot of £40m a year and has received over 7,500 grants worth £420m in its 11-year history, benefits from matched-funding from The FA and the Premier League for every pound it spends and is having its finances dragged down as a result of the cuts.
London Tigers, a 25-year-old charity that provides health and educational support primarily to the Bangladeshi community in the capital and boasts mayor Boris Johnson as its patron, is facing extinction. 
The organisation received £762,370 of funding last financial year but has seen that plummet and forced founder Mesba Ahmed to slash his 40-strong full- and part-time staff to the point where he is forced to run the charity alone. “I do not know what the government think they are doing, do they just think they are going to blink and community issues will disappear?” says Ahmed. “Some of the people that we work with are the most disadvantaged from low income families and deprived local neighbourhoods.
“We could have David Beckham come down here and take lots of nice photos with him; that’s all great but to run a community football club you need money.”
Ahmed’s story is a familiar one. Cuts website reports that Aston FC, the East Hampshire Sports Council and Macclesfield Town’s community initiative were among many to have funding slashed to zero last year. The Federation of Stadium Communities, a body based in the Midlands that uses well-attended events and matchday marches to raise issues over crime rates, unemployment and disability, recorded a £27,598 deficit between income and expenditure in its last financial year. Chief executive Judy Crabb believes planning for the future is almost impossible at a time of great uncertainty. 
National Children’s Football Alliance director believes Ernie Brennan believes the cuts could actually benefit a sector misdirecting its efforts in competing too hard for a small pot of cash. “The most frustrating aspect of cutbacks is that the empire charities continue to ignore the fantastic work that the smaller charities do. We live in a third sector of divide and rule and this proves very effective in terms of culling the frontline in the current economic climate,” says Brennan who lambasted “immature” national organizations who “stack their boundary walls high” to prevent drip-down funding.
Of course, the public purse is not the only strained coffer. The general public are struggling to find the extra cash to give to charity while the number philanthropic donations from private corporations has deteriorated as the City feels the heat. 
Charities are having to be savvy – pushing resources online and studying consumer psychology carefully to latch on to social media trends. 
The effects of reduced resources are widespread. Poor health, increasing crime rates, rising unemployment, a further kicking for any sense of community spirit and ultimately skills on the pitch are all likely consequences for the country’s most deprived, not least the 13 million of the population who live in poverty and for whom even buying a kit is a stretch. Options appear scarce and, for some, the crunch point of closure may come all too soon.

Article originally appeared in Issue 302 of When Saturday Comes