The dimmest pupil in geography classes could probably tell you Southampton to Sunderland is a fair old slog, a trip to be planned with care as far in advance as possible to keep costs down and bosses happy.
The people who sit on the safety advisory group for Sunderland AFC – representatives from the club, Northumbria police, the Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue, the North East Ambulance Service, the Sports Grounds Safety Authority and the local authority – are not dim.
They were or should have been fully aware of the implications of their announcement that Sunderland’s league cup game against the Saints would take place on October 30. It was known police had objected, because Newcastle were also drawn at home to play Man City on the same night. League cup games attract small crowds but there were concerns about policing rival groups of fans moving around in the region on the same evening, a few days after the derby.
It took a further 10 days for the date to be switched. SAFC now play Saints next Wednesday. No account whatever was taken of any travel plans, including time off booked at work and non-flexible transport or hotel bookings, already made in good faith by supporters of either side (Sunderland, of course, have many exiled fans who regularly make the long trip to the North East for games).
In an open letter to Northumbria police, Ian Todd – co-founder of the London and SE branch of the SAFCSA and a prominent figure in the Football Supporters’ Federation – sets out the case for the ordinary supporter.
He awaits with interest any reply, as does Salut! Sunderland which raised the issue with the force yesterday. Neither has so far received a response or, indeed, details of how Northumbria police proposes to compensate fans for any losses.
Dear Northumbria Police,
Through bitter experience of losing money on non-refundable hotel and travel bookings, football supporters are mostly savvy nowadays about not making arrangements too far in advance.
So when the draw for the 5th Round of the Capital One Cup scheduled both Newcastle and Sunderland at home, the fans of all four clubs must have been cautious about making their arrangements to attend.
There was the possibility that either game could be moved for live TV transmission and there were obviously policing issues concerned with the games both being immediately after the Sunderland-Newcastle Premier League game. All of these factors were known on 26th September.
It was therefore, I submit, reasonable to assume, when, 12 days later, Sunderland announced their game would take place on 30th October that all agencies involved within and outwith the Safety Advisory Group had been fully consulted and agreed this date.
On that basis I, and I’m sure many other remotely located Sunderland fans [Editor's note - Ian lives in Middlesex], as well as the supporters of Southampton, made arrangements to attend the game.
Ten days later it was announced the date of the game had been changed, so making work release, travel and accommodation arrangements invalid. No factors had arisen during that 10-day period that were not fully known in the initial 12 day period so the question has to be asked, “Why?”.
I am advised by the Football League, who were so embarrassed by the change of plan that they phoned me personally to apologise and pre-warn me [Editor's note - Ian sits on football's Fixtures Working Party] that the change was at Northumbria Police’s request.
Such prevarication and then decision reversal is both irresponsible and inconsiderate to the many affected by it. Unfortunately, your force has previous in such situations – I refer you to my letter of 20th September 2011 which noted that it took from 17th June to 30th August to agree a date and kick-off time for the Sunderland-Norwich game on 18th September that year.
Clearly no lessons have been learned, no greater sympathy for travelling supporters engendered.
I should be grateful for a credible explanation of your inability to announce a binding and earlier decision concerning this Capital One Cup game and a firm assurance that every attempt will be made in future to avoid such discreditable public relations.
Ian D Todd
* It is worth adding that the Evening Chronicle reported on Oct 11 – a week after the original decision was reached to play the game on Oct 30 – that senior officers were unhappy with it.
The specific question Salut! Sunderland put to Northumbria police concerned the extent, if any, to which the avoidance of disruption to travelling supporters’ lives was taken into account.