Saturday was a great day out for all concerned with Plymouth Argyle. The 1-0 win against the then table toppers Forest Green Rovers sent us all home with beaming smiles. I was also delighted with the result, but left the ground thinking that football needs to do better.
Before I even arrived I knew that it was going to be a weird experience. Forest Green Rovers do not have accessible seating arrangements in their away end. Surprising though it may be, EFL laws do not state that a club must have accessible seating in all areas of their ground, just that they must have a space in their ground. Hence, I found myself sitting among the opposition fans on Saturday.
I was already apprehensive about the idea, with just two other Argyle fans due to there be there alongside me. After all, being in the terraces with people who support the same team, and share that passion for your city and club, is a massive part of what makes football the ‘beautiful game’, doesn’t it?
Yet, just thirty minutes into the game – and despite my team winning – I felt very uncomfortable. We had to put in a complaint after a Forest Green supporter made a disabilist comment towards us. Then, a Forest Green player shouted at the fan sat next to me, telling them to ‘f***off’ after the he had questioned the substitute’s conduct towards the linesman.
This may sound like standard fare for a football game, but when you’re isolated in the home end, it can be more intimidating. To add to this, Forest Green manager Mark Cooper insinuated that my dad was lying about the language used by the player towards the fan.
It must be noted that the ground staff at Forest Green dealt with the situation swiftly and accordingly once they were told of the comments (an investigation into the events is currently occurring). My credit goes to the club for that.
This could and should have been avoided
That being said, this all could and should have been avoided, had Forest Green provided the correct facilities for disabled away supporters.
However, I am not just here to point the finger at Forest Green Rovers. This may have been my first instance of having to sit in the home end during an away match, but I have heard stories from my friends of being spat on at Fratton Park in a match against Portsmouth.
Meanwhile, Exeter City did not provide disabled toilets in their away end last month, meaning that my friend had to use the facilities in the home end. Travelling there and back was not only inconvenient, but also incredibly annoying given we were 1-0 down and he was having to travel right through the middle of Exeter fans.
This in itself is a breach of EFL rules, as appendix 1 paragraph 11 clearly states that “those areas of the ground providing disabled facilities in accordance with paragraph 15 below must also provide appropriate disabled toilet facilities”.
Time for change
For things to change, the attitude towards making football a more inclusive game for all needs to improve from the top, down.
First, the government should pass legislation that forces the EFL to adopt stricter rules surrounding disabled seating, that guarantees accessibility to all areas of each ground. Appendix 1 paragraph 15 need to be amended to clearly specify that clubs must provide facilities for the accommodation of disabled supporters in all areas of the stadium. Trusting the EFL to regulate itself is a non-starter, as the expulsion of Bury has proved in recent months.
Clubs who fail to take such steps should be punished, either financially or through a points deduction.
For the time being, if an away supporter needs to purchase disabled tickets and the club do not provide accessible seating with the fellow away fans, the person needs to be notified in advance. Before I purchased my ticket, I received no prior warning from either Plymouth Argyle or Forest Green Rovers that I wouldn’t be with the away fans.
After my experience on Saturday, I made a decision that I would not go to Forest Green again, at least not until they sort out an area with accessible seating for away supporters. This isn’t the way it should be. Football is meant to be a game that brings people together, not one that pushes them apart.
Football has made great strides in the last twenty or so years at becoming a more inclusive game for all.
Saturday reminded me we still have a long way to go for this to be the case.