Aside from the result against Portsmouth all but confirming our place in the play-offs, the other big talking point was, once again, crowd trouble. The match on Saturday saw ugly scenes as a flare was thrown from the away end onto the North Stand below, disrupting the match itself. It is important to commend the quick work of Northumbria Police, who were able to identify and apprehend the suspected thrower during the game. It does however raise issues of pro-active security, especially given this latest incident comes just weeks after the notorious Coventry fixture.
Obviously, the actions of a few individuals do not represent the entirety of the fan bases mentioned here. Each club has a minority of moronic fans, some clubs have more than others. Needless to say, regardless of who you support, if you think throwing missiles and pyrotechnics at other people is acceptable, then you should not be allowed the privilege of being able to attend football matches. It is that simple.
It seems strange that it has taken seven years for this to have happened. The problems we’ve seen in these fixtures are unlike anything seen, even in top-flight derby matches. Bigger crowds are probably more susceptible to this behaviour due to perceived anonymity, but the fixture against Doncaster, sandwiched by these games, saw a similar number of travelling fans and passed without incident.
Perhaps there is something to be said for the respective falls from grace of Coventry and Portsmouth in the behaviour of some of their individual fans. Both sets of fans have used anarchy at matches as means of protest against their respective terrible owners, interrupting games with pitch invasions or throwing objects onto the pitch. A visit to the Stadium of Light would back memories of this fixture being played with both teams being in the top flight, and some individuals being too eager at the prospect of this. You could similarly put Charlton and Blackpool into these categories, however the Charlton home fixture took place too early in the season for the game to have a high stakes edge these games had, whilst Blackpool visited the Stadium of Light in midweek and in the midst of boycotts of matches.
The most obvious solution is to increase security in the away end. I’m no security expert but increasing searches on entry seems like the easiest response. However, this takes time to do properly and as Saturday demonstrated, it only takes one person to sneak something in to cause trouble. Cages and nets are another idea being mentioned, but these remedies evoke dark memories when it comes to football stadia. In any case, putting fans in cages like wild animals gives them no incentive to behave any other way. The most obvious solution would be to relocate the away fans to the lower bowl, to make sure that the home fans below at least not as vulnerable to unprovoked attacks. Sections of support have long argued for this in order to improve the atmosphere, but recent events might make it a necessity.
With season ticket renewals underway, moving the away section would have to wait until the season after next. The issue being, that there isn’t anywhere else to for it to go. Ideally, if they were to be in the lower bowl, they’d be in a corner, occupying as little of the touchline as possible. The positioning of the corporate hospitality means that this is impossible from the South West Corner along to the North Stand, whilst the Family Zone is now well established in the South East corner. Moving fans to the North East corner would be the least disruptive, but it could have implications for the nearby Sensory Room and Black Cats Bar. Security would also have to be increased to maintain segregation in the concourse underneath, where there is currently none.
It is also important to remember that the corners of the ground currently provide the most affordable seating, so locating them here would either mean pricing home supporters out of games, or the club taking a financial hit to lower prices in other areas.
That realistically leaves the East Stand, ideally towards the North End so as not to disrupt the Family Zone [the Roker End hasn’t been developed like it has to be given to the away fans]. Putting them in the East Stand would rekindle the same old gripes supporters had before away fans were moved, namely that smaller away followings look bad on TV highlights. This would also require some prime seating to be left empty to provide separation between home and away crowds.
Obviously, your favoured solution will depend on where you are looking at things from. Understandably, fans in the North Stand rightfully want to enjoy football without aerial threats from above. Equally though, the club’s hierarchy would more than likely be reluctant to take action which would result in decreased revenue without exploring other options first.
The club has designed the Stadium on the basis that the away fans are housed in the concourse and moving them would cause disruption one way or another. It is something to bear in mind that, were Sunderland to reach the Premier League again, clubs are required to provide away fans with seating along the touchline. The issue is one which will continue to rear its head, until one way or another, until it is resolved.