by Richard Brook
On 30th March 2013 Huddersfield Town are due to host Hull City in the Football League Championship, yet the game has become a focal point for a considerable amount of controversy. Ostensibly the point of contention is currently West Yorkshire Police’s decision that the game can go as a “bubble match”. That is to say the match will be subject to highly restrictive conditions placed upon the away support Hull are able to bring. In fact the dispute goes much deeper than that and encompasses Sky Sports and the Football League as well as Huddersfield’s local constabulary.
The game is scheduled to kick off at 5:20pm, as it has been selected by Sky Sports for television coverage. Initially officers planned to block the fixture taking place at this time at all. The police have since relented on this position. The game can now take place as long as Hull City bring no more than 1,500 supporters (an improvement of 500 on initial negotiations) and do not allow any independent travel to Huddersfield. That is to say that if you are a Hull City fan attending the match you must travel on the official Hull City coaches, or you will be breaching West Yorkshire Police’s conditions. The game will additionally be all ticket and the highest pricing category possible, Category A.
Under normal circumstances Huddersfield can accommodate around 4,000 visiting fans and would expect somewhere in the region of 2,500 for this fixture.
West Yorkshire Police have taken the decision to rate the fixture as a category C, increased risk fixture, the highest level of risk on the scale. This decision has reportedly been reached by virtue of the fact that there will be increased drinking time in the lead up to a 5:20pm kick off. The decision appears to wholly ignore the fact that both clubs point out that they have no history of a particular rivalry and not one Hull City supporter was arrested, for an alcohol related offence during the entire 2011/12 season.
Amanda Jacks, the caseworker for the Football Supporters Federation (FSF) for this case informs that she has today forwarded well over 100 emails of complaint to the Police Complaints Commission, West Yorkshire Police, local Members of Parliament and the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Football Group. The FSF has also referred one young Hull fan, 15-year-old Louis Cooper, to a solicitor as he seeks to fight the decision through the courts. The teenager is set to miss the fixture as he usually travels to matches from his home in Manchester.
Former Deputy Prime Minister, and indeed former Member for Hull East, John Prescott has branded the restrictions as “Draconian” and compared them to the travel restrictions during the miner’s strikes. Lord Prescott points to the case of John Miles, who supports Hull and lives in Huddersfield and is thus placed in the ridiculous situation of having to travel from Huddersfield to Hull to get an official coach back the other way.
Lochlinn Parker, of Deighton Pierce Glynn, the solicitor handling the case reportedly believes that West Yorkshire Police’s decision is unlawful, and is said to be considering applying for a judicial review of the decision if the restrictions are not lifted.
So where do Sky Sports and The Football League fit in with the controversy? Everything I have described so far stems from one West Yorkshire Police decision, which directly affects Hull City supporters. However Huddersfield Town have had attempts to have games televised on Sky turned down by the police a number of times already this season. Had these other requests been granted then the Hull City kick off time might never have been moved to 5:20pm.
Football League clubs are bound by their Sky contract to make provision for at least one home game a season to be televised. It has been reported that West Yorkshire Police had already refused to allow coverage of the home games against Leeds United and Cardiff City. A representative of Huddersfield Town explained to me that they were informed by the League in January that game had been selected for television coverage, and approached the police as is usual. The Police initially declined their request to alter the kick off time due to their risk assessment and the “additional financial burden” this would put on the force.
As result of this decision the club was summoned to a meeting with the Football League. At the meeting it was explained to them that as a member of the League they had contractual obligations to Sky Sports, and that failure to fulfil these implications could result in sanctions – which might include a points deduction. Huddersfield Town currently sit just six points above the Championship relegation zone as such the implications for the club, promoted via the League One Play Offs last season could have been catastrophic.
In a statement, Huddersfield Town Chief Executive Nigel Clibbens, spoke of the fact that it was genuine Hull City supporters that were being punished and thanked Hull as a club, for supporting them in doing what was necessary to avoid League sanctions.
“We are just very relieved the game is to be staged”, said Mr Clibbens. “The real people who suffer are the normal every day Hull fans who just want to support their team but have to abide by the restrictions. We are really grateful for the support of Hull City in helping us deal with the issue”.
Huddersfield were told by the League that no clubs has ever failed in its obligations relating to the Sky contract but Mr Clibbens went to to recognise the difficulties faced by West Yorkshire Police and stressed their previous good working relationship.
Although it is essentially West Yorkshire Police’s decision that has met with disapproval, it is difficult to disagree with the decision if the “additional financial burden” really would have an effect on their ability to perform their other police duties, aside from crowd control at sports events. Of course questioning of the decision itself, and the legality of how it was reached is to be welcomed especially as a respected legal professional believes the decision to be an “unlawful” one.
However the real question that needs answering is why a club, especially one far from safe from the threat of relegation, can be threatened with a points a deduction over the breach of a commercial contract. This fact appears to fly in face of the spirit of a sporting contest. Of course clubs face points deductions for other financial issues such as going into administration, but the point is that that is because such clubs have effectively cheated. Every sympathy should be afforded to supporters and unpaid players of clubs in administration, but the money men have tried to cheat the system by spending more than they can afford on a gamble at getting promoted – this is cheating.
Failing to honour television obligations is not cheating. It does not warrant a sporting punishment especially when the club in question are being given no alternative, rightly or wrongly, by the police. At most a club breaching a television contract should be fined, and I would argue that even that would have been incorrect in Huddersfield’s case. The Football League offered no comment when I asked them for their reasons behind threatening Huddersfield Town with a points deduction over a matter, which at that point was completely outside of their control.
Regardless of whether it is a Sky decision, or a Football League decision that a points penalty might apply, one cannot help but feel that the scenario that arose blurs the distinction between Sky as passive observer, that reports on the game, and Sky as an active party in making the news it is to report.