Last week, the Premier League met with fan groups from its member clubs at the Hyatt Regency Churchill Hotel in London. I was lucky enough to represent the Newcastle United Supporters Trust at this event and can provide mostly positive feedback from my experience. I’ve had better coffee, mind.
The meeting started with a discussion on the progress of implementing a video assistant referee (VAR) system in top-flight matches. While the Premier League has already decided that VAR will be in use from the start of next season, its director of policy Bill Bush explained that the reasoning behind not introducing it sooner, i.e. this season following its use at the World Cup, was that the division wanted more “extensive” testing. Bush said that the challenge of operating VAR across multiple matches happening at the same time – he highlighted that this challenge did not exist to the same degree at the World Cup – would require some “fine tuning”. On Saturdays, the Premier League’s busiest day for fixtures, Bush noted that “clear standards” would have to be in place so as not to use VAR “excessively” and disrupt the flow from kick-off through to full-time too much. Essentially, he suggested, that stoppages for the sake of stoppages were to be avoided.
While the consensus of the fan groups present on the day was in favour of VAR, some consideration was given to whether the technology would cause a distinction between the experience for fans watching the match on TV versus those in the stadium. Bush said that the Premier League were taking this into account and drafting legislation which would possibly require VAR decisions to be explained, in detail, over a PA system.
The conversation in Marylebone then took a political turn, moving onto the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union. The Premier League, which is the workplace for many high-earning and highly taxed EU nationals, is apparently in the process of floating a “football-specific” immigration policy to the Home Office. The sentiment from fans around the table on the day was that foreign players had enhanced the league, and therefore the league should do what it can to maintain access to the best footballing talent in the world, irrespective of nationality.
Structured dialogue, i.e. regular meetings between fan groups and senior members of their clubs’ staff, was also on the agenda. The Premier League is reviewing its policy on the regularity with which clubs are mandated to “brief” fans on club-related news. There is also some talk of making forum events have “at least one director present”. The Premier League would like to see supporter liaison roles elevated in their importance.
It was at this point I suggested that the director attendance stipulation should be extended to owners. Bush responded that this would be at the individual owner’s discretion, but acknowledged the “concerns of certain clubs”. I highlighted that Newcastle had previously delayed and cancelled forum meetings. Bush suggested that the league would look into punishing clubs which did not fulfil their responsibilities in fan engagement.
Safe standing was also discussed on the day. All fan groups represented were in favour of this being introduced. Bush explained that, as with VAR, it is a case of carrying out the necessary checks before committing to something. The safety reviews are ongoing and will require external, government-level support from the Department for Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS).
On fan behaviour and recent pitch incursions, Bush made it clear that the Premier League is “against collective punishment” and would rather focus on individual bans and sanctions. Relating to the scenes during out 2-2 draw with Bournemouth, fellow Newcastle fan and chief executive of the United Football Supporters’ Organisation Kevin Miles noted the need “for a distinction between enthusiasm for a last-minute goal and a genuine intent to do harm”. Bush agreed that cases should be treated on an individual basis with context taken into account.
Travel for away games was also discussed. Progressive ticketing policies are being floated by the Premier League, in conjunction with DCMS, to various rail companies, including train tickets which are aligned to the fixture, rather than the intended date of travel. This would, in theory, mean that if fixtures were moved because of TV scheduling decisions, fans would at least not have to buy another ticket. There was also talk, Bush revealed, about a football supporters’ rail card, but rail companies were less receptive to this idea, as there are already many different concession arrangements in place.
I pointed out that travel for away fans, especially those of clubs far away from other clubs, was made more difficult when fixtures were re-arranged with little notice. I used Newcastle as an example, naturally, and drew attention to our 18 consecutive away fixtures on Monday nights. Bush asked whether I was sure if this was the case. Kevin Miles, as well as the representatives of several other northern clubs present, assured him that it was.
I said that I appreciated that some fixtures would become inconvenient travel situations, because of where Newcastle is, but asked whether more could be done to ensure that one-sided travelling did not persist. Newcastle fans are happy to follow their team to difficult destinations, so long as fans of other clubs are doing the same. The Liverpool and Everton delegates, in particular, were very supportive of this point. The Liverpool delegate noted that Liverpool’s mid-week or Monday night fixtures tend to be half at home and half away. He said that the same should be true of Newcastle’s.
Finally, the conversation moved onto Kick it Out’s anti-racism initiatives, particularly those aimed at making sure that grounds were more welcoming to fans from ethnic minority backgrounds. Kick it Out has produced guidance on how to report racism in the stands and is encouraging clubs to actively reach out to groups who might support them on TV but not feel comfortable attending the ground in person. The Premier League is lending its name to these initiatives and encourages fans groups to do similar work.
Overall, I’d class the meeting as a success insofar as important issues were raised and I got to say my piece about away day inconveniences. I’m encouraged by the progress made on VAR and structured dialogue. While it is unlikely Mike Ashley will turn up at the next fans forum event, it is nice to know that the Premier League agrees that these should be held more often and not unscrupulously re-arranged.
Watch Rohan discuss the meeting:
You can also view the minutes posted by the Football Supporters Federation (FSF):