Push to play at neutral venues is based on outdated image of football fans, says former match commander

Sam Dean
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The push to play at least five Premier League matches at neutral venues is based on an outdated view of football supporters that is shaped by their previous reputation, a former match commander has said in a scathing attack on the police’s plans.

Owen West, a recently retired West Yorkshire chief superintendent and an expert on crowd policing, told Telegraph Sport that the drive to play a series of games at neutral venues, including at least three Liverpool matches, is not based on “current intelligence” regarding football fans.

The comments come after a day of confusion in the neutral venues saga after Mark Roberts, Britain’s most senior football police officer, said that at least five fixtures will not be played at the usual home grounds following requests from local forces.

Roberts said in his statement that a “consensus” had been reached in discussions over the neutral venues issue. The Premier League does not regard the issue as settled, though, and still hopes that all fixtures can be completed without the need for neutral venues.

Merseyside Police also said they had no objections, in relation to crime and disorder, to any matches being played at Anfield and Goodison Park, while Greater Manchester Police said final decisions had not yet been reached.

Roberts, the national lead for football policing, named Manchester City vs Liverpool, Manchester City vs Newcastle United, Manchester United vs Sheffield United, Newcastle vs Liverpool and Everton vs Liverpool as the five matches that would be held at neutral venues.

The same would also apply to any match in which Liverpool could secure the title, meaning that Jurgen Klopp’s side would not be able to win the championship at Anfield but would be able to play there after being confirmed as league winners.

The argument for playing at neutral grounds has largely focused on the fear of supporters congregating at matches that are being held behind closed doors.

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But West questioned how playing a match at a neutral venue would make a difference in the case of a Liverpool title victory, for example, as he would still expect celebrations in the city irrespective of where the match was won.

He added: “Too much of this risk assessment is based on former reputation and not on current intelligence and current intentions. Where we are with the pandemic is wholly unprecedented.

“We simply don’t know how a call for responsible action to the fans would be received. I think it would be received very well. We cannot as a police force continue to rely on reputation and the things that have happened years ago.

“I vividly remember observing a football match in a northern force within the last two years. Two clubs came together who had not played for 27 years, and it said on the police briefing that one of the reasons for the high number of police officers involved was that 27 years ago these clubs came into contact and there was disorder.

“This is a classic example of not having up to date, contemporary intelligence, and wrapping up what might have happened before as a rationale to go to a neutral venue.”

Last night Greater Manchester Police said they had identified the three games in their area which require “further conversation”, adding that they are still working with clubs and safety groups to see if those matches can be played at the intended grounds.

Liverpool are still hopeful of being able to play all their remaining home matches at Anfield, although Klopp said that it is “not important” to him where they win the title.

“We have the best home fans in the world so maybe now we have the best stay at home fans in the world,” the Liverpool manager told BeIN Sports. "There's a 50 per cent chance of not becoming champion in your own stadium anyway. Who cares? It's really not important. We will celebrate in the right manner whenever it might be.”