Before I even start here please be assured I do not, in any way, condone disabled fans being left in the rain when it puts them in direct danger or causes them issues.
I don’t agree any fan should be left in the rain when there are better options available, I made this very clear when our fans were subjected to an open terrace at FGR despite other options being available. I directly acknowledge that, as an aging ground, we do not have the facilities to adequately accommodate disabled fans at present, certainly not when our stadium is 95% full every single week. I just want to be clear this is not a ‘disabled’ fan bashing, nor am I belittling their experience at Sincil Bank this weekend. Clearly we have some way to go before reaching an acceptable standard for disabled supporters, as I’m sure many other clubs do.
In truth this issue should never have received such attention. It is my understanding that the initial complaint on social media was responded to immediately by Liam Scully, to then find it on the national news was very poor. My assumption, being fair to Phil Tooley, is that the usual lazy journalism was applied, the BBC trawled social media, found a story and approached the Tooleys. My hope would have been that they politely suggest it is being dealt with, but it is easy for me to say that as I wasn’t disabled and sat in the rain. However, had the ‘proper’ media approached me about the social media furore over fans getting wet at Forest Green, I’m not sure I would have spoken to them. Perhaps that is a distrust of some aspects the media at present.
That distrust has been strengthened after listening to William Wright’s show from last night though, as much as I desperately do not want to hack off Radio Lincolnshire as I thoroughly enjoy going on Rob’s show, I’m not sure our local station should have been trying so desperately hard to discredit our own club. After all, I’m sure a large percentage of their listeners are there by virtue of the unrivalled coverage Rob, Michael and James Williams offer. Anyone listening to that interview yesterday might be forgiven for thinking the club and the BBC do not have a good relationship.
Firstly though, the facts of the case are not at all as reported and I think it is significant that the message is corrected publicly. Much of the complaint glosses over key issues and paints our club in a bad light when I do not think that is entirely the case.
Let us start at the very beginning of the day. The Chesterfield fans have claimed they saw heavy rain predicted and dressed accordingly if only for the journey from the car to the stadium. They knew in advance they’d be in the Stacey West, described as not ideal by Phil, an apparent season Sincil Bank visitor. Firstly, where in the Stacey West can disabled fans be allocated covered seating? It’s been some while since I last went in there sadly, but my understanding is the first row of seats are on a concrete plinth, and not suitable for wheelchairs. Is that not still the case? Has there ever been suitable accommodation in that stand for disabled supporters? My belief is no but I’m happy to be corrected.
Also, the weather forecasts those fans read offered significantly to the ones I saw. Before anyone asks why I was so bothered, as you’ll know I edit a magazine and we sell on a match day. I need to know if the weather is going to be poor so my sellers are aware. Will I need to bag the magazines in a box or will it be dry to allow them to remain just in cardboard? I checked the weather and a light shower was forecast ahead of kick off, nothing more. Also they’ve described it as ‘chilly’, far from it I actually wore my thinnest coat due to the warm October climate. It wasn’t tropical, but chilly is perhaps taking it a bit far. This wasn’t the depths of winter, after all. I concede after a shower it may have been colder were the fans wet, but to suggest the club knew in advance the weather conditions and didn’t make provision is making a large assumption that I believe to be incorrect.
As for saying they were by the bins, that was very cynical. Yes, there are bins in that area of the stadium but the implication was they’d been treated like trash and that wasn’t on. The first photo Phil put on social media didn’t have any bins in by the way, and the second was very misleading also. There are bins in the stadium but the fans were put close to their own supporters, something I’m sure they actually wanted. I take on board the area wasn’t covered and that is an issue, but to throw the bins comment in there is actually distasteful and crass.
Next up are the contrasting comments about what was offered to those fans and at what stage of proceedings. The Tooleys suggest they were simply left in the rain throughout the first-half, only to be moved to an unsafe place in the second half. Sandra mentioned that her carer couldn’t be at the side of her and she was a ‘sitting duck’ had the ball been kicked at her. I do sympathise with the situation and I appreciate it could leave her feeling vulnerable. However, it doesn’t sound like we’ve had the whole picture.
Liam Scully, who handled himself superbly by the way, confirmed that far from being ditched in the rain and abandoned, there was intervention in the first half which was accepted by some. That included spots in the home end as well as somewhere in the segregated area. Why are the world being told this did not happen then? Why is positive intervention and options being communicated to the world as ‘no intervention at all’? Look, we all know we have an aging ground, 90% of Football League clubs do not have the facilities that Chesterfield have, but surely that is no reason to simply rubbish the help that was offered? Here is a harsh fact: we do not have adequate facilities for disabled fans. We haven’t had ever since I’ve been a fan and even top-flight clubs acknowledge the same. Even Phil and Sandra acknowledge that, so why is it Lincoln City that are being made the scapegoat for a nationwide problem? I’ll tell you why I believe: our success last season.
How many social media comments have spoken of the ‘money made from the cup run’, or alluded to us being cash rich? It was mentioned on the radio more than once and every time any issue arises these days the club are accused of not spending the money. Phil mentioned it in his radio interview too. If this had happened at Accrington Stanley, would it have had that crucial angle of previous success? No, it would not. Is it jealousy on the part of some clubs? Possibly. I’m not saying Phil and Sandra are guilty of that, I understand their experience was not what they have back in their purpose-built, modern facility, but I’d wager the press wouldn’t have gobbled it up so much if the club concerned hadn’t been in the national spotlight last season. Build ’em up, knock ’em down, isn’t that the media mantra?
Far from us being a club with tight wallets and a lack of foresight, Chesterfield actually contributed to this in the first place. The suggestion of 600 fans, maximum, meant we were unprepared for the deluge of people who arrived at the ground. No, this isn’t an excuse but it is a contributing factor that seems to have been lost. We received information, from Chesterfield I assume, that they would bring no more than 300, a figure inflated to 600 maximum at late notice. They brought almost twice that, how can you adequately budget for that? All the FA Cup money in the world can’t let you predict the future.
Liam represented the club very well under some aggressive questioning from William Wright. I couldn’t help feel Wright wishes he was Jeremy Paxman, trying to railroad Liam’s answers with his own direct questioning. He even indulged in the lazy journalism, quoting tweets he’d read online rather than, say, contacting a home disabled fan for their comments. Why get another angle on the story when a quick look at Twitter will give you time for tea and a biscuit, eh?
Nobody ever said this was an acceptable situation, but as a local radio station given excellent access to the players, management and club as a whole, it might have been nice to help get a more positive message across. That is what Liam did, he empathise with the Tooleys without conceding the club were ill-prepared or oblivious to the problems. Yes, a situation arose but no, it wasn’t due to bad planning. Offers were made and refused for whatever reasons, and the club continued to work with the affected fans. So the solution wasn’t ideal, at least there was a solution. I didn’t see the Forest Green lot making us any offers when our fans were soaked. Anyone saying ‘yeah, but those fans weren’t disabled’ is missing the point, surely? A person has the same rights as any other, disabled or not don’t they? I believe those disabled fans should have been offered covered seating in the event of rain, rain that some saw forecast and others did not. That happened but they weren’t happy with the offers for whatever reason. Let me ask this; what did they want? Did they want us to rip seats up from the concrete there and then? Did they want a steward to run to B&Q and buy a gazebo to put up? In all of this I haven’t heard those knocking the club say what should have happened. Just saying ‘you should have a covered area anyway’ isn’t a sound argument either, we don’t, neither do a large proportion of Football League clubs. we’re working on it, but you can’t magic up these facilities overnight can you? Lessons will be learned I’m sure, but you can’t do that retrospectively can you?
I get very angry when my club are the subject of unjust criticism or negative attention and I feel strongly this is one of those times. As Liam explained the club are being proactive on this situation, but it doesn’t happen overnight and anyone who suggests it does is deluded. If we were the only club that had this issue and we’d been the focus of complaints before perhaps I could understand it, but that isn’t the case. A complaint was made via social media which, sadly, is acceptable these days and it was picked up on by desk-riding journalists as something of interest. It harps back to the hooligan stories after Notts County though, take any chance to knock down everything positive the club has built up. The media love it when a good-news story goes bad and they’re trying their hardest to uncover every one they can. Granted, this wasn’t initially our local media, but a more club-friendly approach wouldn’t have gone amiss, not when the facts emerged. It isn’t fair, especially not when this is a national issue not just a Lincoln City issue.
I just imagined that perhaps BBC Radio Lincolnshire might have had a bit more class that to indulge in the club-bashing that everyone else has been specialising in since we got promoted. I would be very interested to hear Rob and Michael’s thoughts on the discussion as I think they’d be far more balanced and reasoned than those of the Paxman-wannabe.
As for Phil and Sandra, it is a pity their issue seems to include some misrepresentation and they’ve allowed a genuine discussion point to become something so much bigger. I do empathise, but my empathy diminishes somewhat when I read the first tweet he made on the subject, ‘full house, plenty of revenue’ were the first few words. We’re back to money again aren’t we? My fear is that our FA Cup run has made us many jealous enemies amongst the ranks of our opponents, looking for any situation they can turn against us. Combined with a story-hungry media just waiting for the next tweet we have a recipe for disaster.
Oddly I haven’t seen many of our own disabled supporters criticising the club and those that have I’m sure will rather work with Liam and the staff to develop the issues into resolutions rather than have their five minutes of fame on the radio. It is a pity some feel that instead of discussion and dialogue the best way to solve a problem is to fed the hungry journalists and keyboard warriors with some titbits they can work themselves up into a frenzy over. I suppose that is life in 2017 for you.