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Stewards Who Stand Out From The Crowd

13 October 2014

Last week an article was published in the Oldham Chronicle regarding the club's match day stewards. Chronicle journalist Alex Carey writes...

After writing a story last month about Kevin Birkett, a Latics fan thrown out of the ground for arguing with stewards after he was told to stop taking pictures, I felt I had a duty to see for myself how the stewarding team at Park operates.

Brian Lawton, Oldham Athletic's safety officer, invited me into the control room for the League One clash with Scunthorpe United where he oversees and manages his team of stewards with access to CCTV footage of the whole ground.

As soon as I arrived, the obvious elephant in the room was the story I had written in the Chronicle about Mr Birkett. It became apparent that many of the stewards had read it as they playfully booed me when I was introduced to all 65 of them during the pre-game briefing.

Having said that, they could not have been more welcoming and it genuinely felt as though they were glad I was there to see things through their eyes.

In the briefing, Mr Lawton recaps his team's performance during the last home game and provides them with information on the away team's fans for the day's game and what they can expect from them.

Issues Mr Birkett raised after his ejection were that he felt rules and regulations being followed by stewards were ruining the atmosphere in stadiums.

One rule in particular was the fact that taking a picture without permission is not allowed for copyright reasons. In actual fact, stewards at Latics follow rules set by the Football League. Another one is that all major football clubs must have all-seater stadiums. 

This was a law introduced after 96 Liverpool supporters died in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. Too many fans had been penned into the Leppings Lane terraces for the FA Cup semi-final with Nottingham Forest. The match was abandoned after six minutes when the scale of the tragedy unfolding became apparent.

Stewards at British football grounds now try to keep fans in their seats if they can, to ensure everyone in the ground can see what is happening on the pitch.

There was one response, and one response only, when I asked members of the stewarding team whether the match atmosphere had suffered as a result, safety is more important.

Mr Lawton said since grounds became all-seater there had not been a single serious incident. I took the opportunity to talk to steward supervisor John Ball, a life-long Latics fan who has been stewarding for 23 years.

Mr Ball was involved in the incident which saw Mr Birkett ejected. He said in all his years on the job, no-one has ever been thrown out for simply taking a picture. What leads to people being ejected from the ground is usually their behaviour towards the stewards.

Prior to the match there had been just five home fans ejected in six league and cup games at Park so far this season. Soon after kick-off I saw for myself on the control room's CCTV monitors exactly what someone has to do to get thrown out.

A Latics fan had entered the Chaddy End with a small bottle of brandy in his pocket - not only against ground rules, but against the law.

Stewards spotted the bottle and confiscated it from him, allowing the supporter to remain in the ground. It was then he became aggressive and started to hurl abuse at stewards who were left with no choice but to eject him.

I could not believe what I was seeing, the stewards were happy for him to stay - and in all honesty he was lucky not to be arrested. But no-one should have to put up with abuse like that, no matter where they work.

The rest of the day was fairly quiet with just one other home fan asked to leave after repeatedly entering a closed section of the Rochdale Road Stand which is there to separate the two sets of supporters.

Something I learnt was that stewards do not want to throw fans out, they will only do so when they are pushed to it and are given no other option.

Another thing I noticed, and something just a small number of fans will need telling, is that the majority of the stewards are Latics fans and have been so for decades. I stood alongside people who adore the club they work for and the people associated with it.

During a chat about football with Mr Lawton in the control room, he told me he had been watching Latics since he was eight and despite how fond he is of his role, which he started earlier this year, he still misses turning up on match day's as a fan.

Also, as professional as he is, there was no hiding his happiness when Latics' late winner hit the back of the net to secure a thrilling 3-2 victory.

Perhaps the most telling moment of the whole day came as soon as the game kicked-off. Life-long Latics fan and steward supervisor Ian Seal made plans to take Latics manager Lee Johnson to the wife of David Seville, a fan who died suddenly last month, so he could give her a bunch of flowers while the whole stadium stood and applauded in tribute to him.

This summed up my experience with the stewards. They care about the club and its fans and as for the rules they enforce, can we really argue with a policy that puts safety before everything?

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