COVENTRY City stewards have spoken of an over-reliance on expensive and ‘clueless’ agency staff at Sky Blues matches resulting from a heavy-handed council and Wasps clampdown.
Several club and stewarding sources also say the cost of ‘over-security’ forced on the Sky Blues has risen dramatically in what “appears to be another attempt to distress and penalise the football club”.
Their concerns include a requirement on the club to hire more costly agency security staff to raise the number of stewards – over and above those supplied by the club. One experienced club steward (speaking at length with us below) also spoke of agency staff failures to understand anything about football fans and how to work with them, including the elderly and disabled fans; an inability to speak English with no knowledge of the stadium; a lack of training and licences for frisking including children and bag-checking; and of young female staff being placed in unsafe positions.
The Coventry Observer exclusively revealed on Wednesday that, following Coventry City Council and others’ intervention of supposed safety grounds, the Wasps-owned Ricoh Arena has taken charge of matchday security and control of Coventry City’s stewards for Sky Blues games – leading to further tension between the stadium’s owners, its tenant and football fans.
It followed one pitch invasion by some protesting fans in December hostile to the club’s parent company Sisu, in the match versus Sheffield United; a friendly pitch celebration by hundreds of fans as Coventry City reached Wembley in the Checkatrade Trophy semi-final last month, when one smoke bomb (used by some at Northampton) went onto the pitch; a small disruption when tennis balls were thrown onto the pitch, and isolated skirmishes at overwhelmingly peaceful games.
We also revealed last week Wasps company Arena Coventry Limited (ACL) had written on several occasions to the Sky Blues to demand payment for 50 per cent of expensive pitch repairs of several thousand Euros per month.
ACL director Andy Gibb had claimed in writing that billing was necessary as Sky Blues fans had “completely wrecked” an already challenged pitch solely because of their Wembley celebration. Our news of Wasps’ written demands for ongoing pitch heating treatment provoked a derisory backlash among Coventry City fans, given the damage caused by rugby matches and in the absence of any charging of the Sky Blues for damage from football games.
In recent months, some Coventry fans had taken to internet forums to complain about a perceived increase in heavy-handed operations.
Their stated concerns include the number of stewards for relatively small and overwhelmingly peaceful crowds, frisking at turnstyles of young children and grandparents, and over-reactions to fans’ emotion during matches in a terrible season for the Sky Blues.
We revealed on Wednesday Ricoh Arena bosses alleged council officials had given them no choice but to take charge of Coventry City matches, or the Sky Blues could have faced playing their home games behind closed doors.
Council officers now allege as the safety monitoring authority the council itself could have been penalised had it not intervened, and denied political or heavy-handed interference – amid the ongoing dispute between Coventry City’s owners and the council over the council’s controversial sale of the Ricoh Arena to Wasps in 2014. Council leader George Duggins recently advocated peaceful fans’ protests.
Our Coventry City sources had told us on Wednesday there was unhappiness their own stewards were now being directed from the control room by security management from another company.
Some stewards, who did not want to be named, spoke of ‘slow and inadequate’ responses by an ‘inexperienced’ control room to incidents reported from their walkie talkies.
- Now another steward, who has been a club steward since 1993 and did not want to be named, has told us: “I’m not trying to attack the agencies. Some of them do a good job. But some of the agency staff are clueless.
“One of the agency stewards said it was their first time in a football ground and that he normally works on the doors at Broad Street in Birmingham.
“Another agency steward ran through the concourse five minutes before kick-off to find someone to tell him where Row FF was.
“One Russian agency worker couldn’t speak English so couldn’t direct anyone. Other fans are being directed to the wrong stand from outside the ground.
“The Coventry City stewards do an NVQ on spectator control. It’s about working with the fans in the ground.
“Customer service is part of that. We know the fans. We know who they are and what problems they have, such as those who are elderly or disabled. Agency staff don’t do that. Some have SIA security qualifications but it’s not necessarily geared towards football grounds.
“We were briefed at the start of the season Wasps wanted us out and wanted to take control themselves, saying Coventry City stewards are rubbish and it’s their stadium. It’s as if the pitch invasion for the Sheffield United game was the excuse they’d been waiting for.
“But many of us have done the job for years. Our family and friends are in the stadium. We are fans – and we are almost volunteers, doing it for hardly any money. Agency staff do it for the money.”
He estimated about half of the stewards last Saturday were agency staff, and a disproportionate number for a smaller crowd. The extra bodies were predominantly agency staff, he added.
“At the end of the game far more stewards than necessary got around the track as if to prepare for a pitch invasion, which was never going to happen on Saturday if you know football and the fans. Some were young girls who would not be trained or capable of handling possibly argumentative hefty men.”
He said he believed security check frisking and bag-checks could be being performed by agency security without the licence and training to do so, adding frisking should be performed by the same sex and never on children.
Other procedures including medical protocols and suspect package searches were not known to the agency staff, he added.
Another Coventry City source said: “It seems to be another way of distressing the football club financially.”
We understand the stewarding costs to the club have risen by several thousand pounds per game, despite lower attendances.
Another CCFC fan has contacted us to say: “I enter through turnstile 21 and observed in the turnstile next to me a child of maybe 6 or 7 being frisked! At the time, I didn’t think it was right but not knowing if it was legal or not I did not challenge it, for which I now feel a bit ashamed.”
- Wasps’ Ricoh Arena told us on Wednesday: “The English Football League, the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, West Midlands Police and Coventry City Council attended CCFC matches and expressed concern at the safety management structure.
“Two pitch incursions in six matches, and three Safety Advisory Group meetings in a month, resulted in Coventry City Council writing to our safety certificate holder, three times in a month clearly stating that unless matters changed there was the very real possibility of them issuing a prohibition notice, which would mean CCFC playing behind closed doors.”
- Relations between indebted Wasps and the football club have been poor since last year when discussions over a fairer share of matchday and non-matchday revenues for the football club broke down.
Wasps have cited ongoing legal action by the Sky Blues’ parent company Sisu against Coventry City Council’s deal to sell the Ricoh to Wasps in 2014 – on favourable 250-year terms not offered to the football club – as the reason for calling off talks.
A three-year deal for the Sky Blues to play at the Ricoh expires at the end of next season and there is uncertainty over where Coventry City will play home matches. Discussions over a groundshare at the Butts Park Arena have stalled.
The football club says it received no non-matchday revenues, and a paltry £73,000 in matchday revenues last season from car parking and food and drink sales around the stadium concourse, with Wasps pocketing around 90 percent of those revenues even for Sky Blues’ matches.
Wasps have access to all the non-matchday revenues from 24/7 commercial activities, including corporate events, sponsorship, naming rights and concerts – with which they hope to make inroads in their £43million debt and ongoing annual losses from higher costs, and with success on the pitch.
Minutes of the October 7, 2014 meeting of Coventry City Council – in which councillors approved the deal to sell the Ricoh to then London Wasps Holdings Limited – show one condition of the deal had been that the football club’s “future and security” would not be compromised.