By Chris Dunlavy
WHEN Charlton told Oxford that Tuesday’s rearranged FA Cup tie would “go ahead as planned”, you could have forgiven U’s supportersfor keeping hold of their cash.
After all, Charlton said the same thing to Barnsley last weekend only for a ref to pitch up at 1pm and tell them the Valley was waterlogged.
No refunds, no cash to get back up the motorway. Just a, “Sorry about that, lads” and a 200-mile slog back up the A1.
Naturally, Charlton have come in for some stick, much of it deserved. True, their pitch is holding water because a section of the drainage system has collapsed. Repair would mean ripping the whole surface up and mid-season and that would take too long. For now, at least, the only option is to pray for sunshine and soldier on.
Any other club of their means would do the same. But Charlton’s justification that their ground staff “didn’t deem it necessary” to call for a preliminary inspection on Friday beggars belief.
We’re talking about a farmyard of a pitch that had already forced the cancellation of two games in seven days before the Barnsley clash. It’s a bit like failing a driving test and “deeming it unnecessary” to have any more lessons.
But what we should all be asking is this: why were Charlton allowed to “deem” anything at all? This was a suspect pitch with supporters travelling 400 miles. Against that backdrop the authorities should have demanded an inspection, not left it to the Addicks.
The Barnsley supporters’ trust have released a statement claiming that Charlton were “economical with the truth and had mis-led supporters”.
It can happen. In February 2003, Newcastle were second in the Premier League and set to face a Middlesbrough side decimated by injury.
The game didn’t kick off until 3pm Saturday but, after heavy snowfall, Boro demanded a pitch inspection at 12pm on the Friday and the match was called off.
By the following morning, the snow was gone, the pitch pristine. A game down the road at Hartlepool didn’t even require an inspection. Though no charges were brought, everyone had a theory as to what had gone on.
Of course, there is no reason to suspect skulduggery at Charlton. But both cases are an illustration of the risks inherent in letting clubs call the shots.
By far the biggest problem, however, is the attitude towards fans. In allowing the game to go without a pitch inspection, both Charlton and the FA showed total disregard for Barnsley supporters.
Though tickets are valid for the rearranged game, the majority of the 500 Tykes fans will have paid anything from £70 to £100 for a train ticket, then another £7 to get across London. Some will have spent £80 in petrol.
Even those who went by coach are looking at £30-£40, plus money for food, drink and programmes. None of them will get that back.
What’s more, the rearranged game will almost certainly be mid-week, meaning supporters who go will lose a day’s holiday. But did anybody think of that? Of course not. It’s typical of the way supporters are treated as an irrelevance in the modern game.
What can be done? Well, the obvious one is to make Friday pm pitch inspections mandatory if supporters are travelling more than 100 miles, at least between November and March. If anything happens after that, it really is just bad luck.
If not, a method must be found to refund fans. Say the average spend of a Barnsley fan is £50, that’s £25,000. Admittedly, that’s a hefty amount of cash but how often does it happen?
Once, twice a year? And as for where the money will come from, that’s easy. Either every club could contribute a percentage of their income, simply by giving up a few hundred quid of their solidarity payment.
Or, better still, levy it from sides promoted to the Premier League. QPR are due to receive over £60m in parachute payments for the next four years. They’ve already had £16m and if they go back up – as seems likely – the remaining £44m will be distributed across the Football League.
Less than one per cent of that would be more than enough to cover fans’ costs. No club could argue with that. So come on. For too long, clubs have called fans the lifeblood of the game while going through their pockets.
It’s time for them to put their money where their mouth is.