You can be free only if I am free

And so, Barryboogate has morphed into Ashleyboogate. This allows the Football Association to describe as ‘crazy’ the section of England fans who made their feelings plain about who was to blame for the Kazakhstan goal. It also brings a comment from the Football Supporters’ Federation that ‘People have paid their money and have every right to express their opinion.’

Well, yes, it’s a free country, isn’t it? Well, up to a point, do I hear you say? OK, I’ll say it for you. It’s a free country up to a point. The question often gets asked ‘But when do we reach the point when we’re not free any more?’

Some answers are easier than others. I’m not free to assault you or steal your money. I’m not free to spread malicious lies about your character. I’m not free to make racist or homophobic comments about you. And that list of crimes or legally recognised civil wrongs could and does fill a very thick book or two.

But what happens if you want to express an otherwise permissible opinion, about the abilities of a professional footballer or a manager or even a work colleague, but you use intemperate language? By ‘intemperate’ in this context I mean abusive or threatening or simply foul-mouthed. The answer is, at least as far as Bradford City is concerned, you will not be allowed to use such language.

The club message board has been suspended since Wednesday. The club ‘always welcomes criticism’, it says, and has ‘resolved the problem with regards to racism and unacceptable language’. Well, maybe it hasn’t. Or maybe it is the subject matter rather than the language that counts. The message board has been suspended because it has ‘recently seen unwarranted verbal attacks on players, staff and supporters which [the club] will not tolerate’.

I don’t read the message board every day, so I’ve missed the ‘verbal attacks’ in question. It surely is no coincidence, however, that they follow within days of Barryboogate. The manager made his feelings perfectly plain in his after-match interview. I don’t always agree with him, but on this one I’m with him 100%. To me as a supporter of Bradford City it doesn’t matter what opinion you have of one of your own players, you are foolish if you boo him and expect him to perform better as a result. If you boo him before he has kicked a ball, then maybe you are ‘crazy’.

But being ‘crazy’ is no reason for shutting down such a well used channel of communication. Being insulting or abusive certainly is a justification. You could even argue that the club is under a legal duty to take all reasonable steps to prevent such language being used. So, not only does the manager have my 100% backing on this one, but so does the moderator of the message board.

Football has always been about opinions. The vastly knowledgeable Jimmy Sirrel, who died recently, once told an after-match press conference ‘You know the score. You can read the league table. The rest is all opinion.’ It’s all down to how those opinions are expressed.

There are people in all walks of life, far beyond football, who believe that there are only their own opinions. Everything else is wrong. At least they won’t start a fight in an empty room, but they may find themselves in that empty room rather more often than those who are prepared to listen to other opinions.

Most people with strong opinions listen to the other side and may well rarely change their mind. But at least they recognise the other side exists and respect their right to exist. I guess that’s what Bradford City mean when they say they ‘always welcomed criticism’.

But when an opinion can be expressed or challenged only in abusive or threatening terms, especially in a medium open to all ages to read, maybe it is time to draw that line and say ‘You are not free to say that in this place’. No, there are no ‘maybes’ about it. It was time to end the opportunity to be abusive. The minority of those who misused the message board may not have caused the physical damage that the other minority (or is it the same minority?) did on the coaches to Leeds, but both sets damaged the name of Bradford City and of football supporters. They took us one step nearer to the atmosphere in and around football grounds back in the 1980’s, a time when fewer and fewer people came to watch games. The vast majority of us must say ‘No more steps in that direction’.

Why Accrington Stanley need to learn lessons off the pitch as well as on it

I’m sure there will have been one or two supporters who left early on Saturday, now kicking themselves after missing such a stunning fightback – I was nearly one of them.

I didn’t want to leave early because I had no faith in the team’s ability to come back, though admittedly I certainly couldn’t see it, but because of the way I’d seen fellow ‘supporters’ treat my wife, each other and Accrington’s Kenny Arthur. With wholly inadequate stewarding, I feared for the safety of myself and others and that no game of football was worth this.

Let me start by explaining that my wife, Rachel, is quite a short person. Not that it’s a problem, but she can suffer when we go to the cinema and a tall person sits in front – and while sitting at the football is rarely an issue, standing on a terrace where the view is never as great is. So I was desperate to ensure she got as good a view as possible.

So we arrived early, went right to the front and stood by one of the crash barriers to the right of the goal. She had an unopposed view of the pitch, save for the gangway in front which fans have to use to enter and exit the stand. All seemed fine until, just after the game kicked off, a group of middle-aged men arrived and decided to stand directly in front of her, on the gangway, and pay little attention to anyone’s feelings behind them.

I watched with amazement as a steward stood nearby and did nothing. What’s worse more of their gang were joining them, having stopped off at the food hut. They ate with their backs to the game, a lovely view for my wife well worth paying £13 for.

Belatedly more stewards arrived to ask them to move, but then the problems really began. Their requests were not just refused, but responded to with loud bursts of swearing and threats. They kept trying to reason with them but there were more and more fans still arriving on the gangway and a lack of places for them to go and stand, even if they’d agreed to move. It became apparent that the stand was overcrowded and later there would be reports some fans with tickets were locked out. Given there seemed to be only ten stewards to marshall the crowd (no police), it was a worrying situation.

One of the most aggressive members of this group was eventually persuaded to comply, so suddenly leapt underneath the crash barrier and shoved my wife out of the way. With steam coming out of my ears I confronted him about his actions, to which he at least apologised. Two minutes later he was back on the gangway with his mates, with the stewards having given up and left.

So the game going on ahead was one Rachel could not see, instead she got to witness some of the most appalling behaviour I’ve ever seen at a City game. Instead of watching the match they continued abusing the steward nearby and making threats to charge onto the pitch. Occasionally they looked at matters on the pitch, one asking “what colour are we playing in?” The game was at least 20 minutes old.

Suddenly Accrington were 1-0 up and the focus of this group of supporters turned to home keeper Arthur. As he walked back towards his goal they hurled abuse in his direction for no obvious reason, to which he just kept his head down and ignored. As he went towards his towel inside the goal he was spat at by one of this group, which provoked an angry reaction from supporters around me.

A steward confronted one of the group, but it was the wrong person, so four or five of us began shouting to the steward and pointing towards the culprit. We were ignored, the steward choosing to scuttle off instead. This group remained definite and seemed to believe they were the innocent victims. “You couldn’t organise a p*** up in a brothel!” was one angry shout (note, that is what they shouted). I’ve heard some people say we didn’t deserve to go 1-0 down when we did and I have no idea if that’s true, as the game was not in my focus, but after this guy’s actions the only fitting punishment was for his football team to be losing.

So what would you do in this situation, your wife in an uncomfortable position with a large group of drunken men shouting horrible abuse and acting in a disgusting manner? I asked if she wanted us to leave and she said no, so I wandered to find us a better spot to move to at half time. In between it had become clear a couple were part of this group with a son, who looked no more than 6-years-old, left to his own devices and stood near us. When someone behind accidentally caused him to spill some of his drink, they received a volley of swearing and abuse from this kid. Judging by the language of his parents, it was easy to see where he gets it from.

So we moved at half time and I was partly cheered up to know that the supporter who spat at Arthur had belatedly been identified and ejected from the ground. We were now in the stand alongside the pitch with a decent, if limited view, and the conversation around us was on what it should be – a football match. There was lots of moaning, but constructive criticism which the players deserved for their lacklustre efforts, and when things did go right I was cheering with them and had I stayed where we were I don’t think I’d have been able to celebrate anything.

The behaviour of these City fans was despicable, showing no respect for Accrington officials or their fellow supporters. Those who had to endure their behaviour will have been left with a negative impression of Bradford City Football Club and that is the most depressing aspect.

Yet what really upset me was the action, or lack of it, from Accrington Stanley. As stewards they are supposed to look after our interests and our safety, but it was obvious they did not have the confidence or ability to manage a huge crowd. There was so few of them and one has to wonder what sort of away following Stanley had anticipated. Clearly it’s a friendly club and last season’s trip was one of my favourite away days out. I’d come across pleasant members of staff all willing to help and welcome us as we parked up, walked to a pub and then entered the ground. The stewards were probably nice people too, but in my opinion not good enough to do the job they were required to do.

In this day and age it is not good enough for a football match to be so badly managed and for paying punters to fear for their safety. This club has ambitions to build a fanbase and climb up the leagues, but if it’s going to succeed it needs a more professional attitude off the pitch as well as on it.

But at least we’d moved away from where the problems were and the afternoon took that unexpected turn for the better. Peter Thorne’s winner was one of those rare moments of unconfined delirium you only get to experience once every three or four years, but which reminds you why football is such a fantastic sport. So I lost the plot and jumped about like a madman, with my equally excited wife celebrating wildly and hugging me back.

The goal was sweet in so many ways – not least because I knew the coward who spat at Accrington’s keeper had missed it.

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