It’s tricky to sum up this game from a footballing point of view, so I’m not even going to bother to be honest. That’s largely because, although I was in full attendance (probably the longest I’ve ever spent at the Berkshire Coliseum) I wasn’t actually watching the game, not properly anyway.
It was a very different matchday for me - I went fully behind the scenes as part of a series of events for STAR to better understand the matchday process and perspective from the club and those who work there. With this game, I was shadowing the chief safety officer, David Parker.
I suppose the first thing to say is that, as anyone who reads this column regularly will know, I live a very sheltered life sitting in the Dolan. That’s largely because I’ve done so for the last 16 years (before that it was the West Stand), but also because that’s the matchday experience I’ve chosen for myself and now, on occasions, for my son, who is six.
Let’s be honest: there have been flash points this season in the stadium. The reasons for these are varied and in some cases complex, in other instances they are pretty simple and straightforward. Me taking part in this role was always planned and had been planned for a number of months, so it wasn’t a direct response to any moaning on Twitter. There is literally no point in me being part of STAR if I can’t form opinions on how the club is run on a matchday and how it can be improved for fans.
A lot of what I did centred around the safety element of what goes on during a matchday. But before I get to that, I want to acknowledge the club’s openness to allow me to do this and give me full access to areas that fans don’t get to go to. After all, in the grand scheme of things, I’m no one really. And I also want to say that I wasn’t let in on any “state secrets”, because there are none. Every single person I spoke to was up front, direct and happy to speak to me.
When I met David just before 10, his first task was to walk around the stadium, inside and out, checking all the key areas. It felt a bit like the first time I was ever taken to Toys R Us to spend my pocket money. We went everywhere: changing rooms, concourses, hospitality, even the referee’s room (which is like the really cheap room at a Butlins on the south coast). The amount of factors that have to be taken in to consideration are genuinely mind blowing. I even watched some chaps fit Hawkeye onto the goal posts (had no idea we even had that in the Championship).
One of the key features of the day was sitting in on the stewards’ briefing well before any gates were open. A lot of these people have been at the club for years and I truly think that’s a positive. They are all fans of the club too: these aren’t people who are just there for the glamour and power trip - they want to work with fans and care about their role. One guy I spoke to goes to away games as a fan. Another, the chief steward, has worked at the club for 20 years plus. They invited me back to another game to shadow them in the stadium, which is something I will take them up on.
We headed back into the corridors of the stadium to head to the referee’s briefing and as I turned the corner of the hospitality corridor, I literally bumped into Dayong, who smiled (HE SMILED AT ME!) and apologised. That blew my mind a bit to be honest, I guess because he was just wandering around and talking to people. Not that he shouldn’t, it’s just that I guess for so long I had the owners of the club as mythical entities. Sure enough, as we made our way pitchside, I looked up to see Dayong in his seat, the first person in the seated bowl within the stadium.
With the turnstiles opening at 1.30, it was time to head up to level four, where David took his position in the control room. This place is crazy: more TVs on show than Curry’s PC World and more biscuits than a coffee morning in a community centre. But then, a terrible thought crept over me like a butcher covering the day’s discarded meat with cling film: I had no lunch on my person. I’d clocked some packet sandwiches on my way past the media centre, so had hopes of snaffling one of those at half time.
Call me sad (people do) but I spent ages watching the real-time attendance clicker on a monitor in front of me. I genuinely had no idea that there was a capacity of around 3k in the Dolan. I also had no idea that the safety announcement wasn’t pre-recorded. Just like The Rock’s promos in wrestling back in the late 90s/early 00s, they are always live.
From the 60+ cameras, any area of the stadium, inside and out, can be zoomed into. Barnsley had brought around 300 down with them and it was fair to say that a few of them came to be heard, with lots of gesturing and gesticulating. I’m not going to go into specific details, but the stewards were kept busy in that part of the stadium. It’s worth pointing out that the club try to keep the same stewards in the same areas, especially for home fans, to build up relationships with supporters and develop that trust.
It blew my mind how many people, within both sets of fans, were intent on watching the other group and not watching the game. Call me old school, but what’s the point? Also, there was a huge gap between both sets of fans, so the gesturing seemed utterly pointless and futile to me as there was physically no way it was going to end in some fisticuffs.
The view from the control room is genuinely incredible and gives you a great idea of positioning and the game plan. However, everyone’s focus there is the crowd and monitoring the safety of all involved, co-ordinating first aid and other response teams around the ground.
Of course, when we scored the winner, there was lots of cheering (as I said earlier, they are all fans) but the attention quickly turned to how the crowd were responding and making sure the behaviour of all in the ground was safe. Goals are always potential flash points and this game was no different. The need to rush towards the away fans is an odd one to me, but lots of people seemed intent on doing it.
I am fully aware of the perception from some “hard done by” fans on the stewarding in the ground. Of course, it’s the same with police - people love them until they’ve actually been policed. Continually trying to wind up the away fans will result in a quiet word, why shouldn’t it? Throwing yourself onto the blue netting for a prolonged period of time will result in you being asked to leave the ground. Making cut-throat gestures to other fans will ensure you don’t see the second half.
The people who work at the club aren’t there to pick on home fans or away fans. They are there to ensure everyone leaves the ground at the end of the game and that the environment, for every fan in attendance, is the best it can be. Could you point to previous games where things haven’t gone well? Of course. Do the the club and the safety team recognise this? Absolutely.
It’s very difficult to criticise the work I saw at the game, it really is. Certain pockets of both sets of fans made it very to difficult to prevent ejections based on their behaviour. The safety team want everyone (key word) to enjoy the game but also show a level of respect. I love the club, but I would not want to be a steward, based on what I saw at what was deemed to be a very low-risk game. The hostility, arrogance and aggression shown to those people in yellow and orange jackets (and I say this as someone who was watching this unfold from within the safety of a locked room) was horrible, it really was, let alone what they were actually saying in person.
But guess what? Just like us fans, they’ll all be back on Wednesday night, hoping for a win from the team, but most importantly, ensuring that everyone stays safe and gets out of the stadium the same way they came in. We would all do well to remember that.
Until next time.