As I sit here on a dark and rainy Friday evening, the weather matches my mood after what has been a very difficult week for Altrincham Football Club. The fact that the Popular Side and the Golf Road were both closed for Tuesday night’s game would have come as a shock to all of you, particularly for such a key game. And the fact that the communication of that situation was not up to our usual standard would have exacerbated your understandable frustration and anger.
This note is an attempt to put that right.
I think it is worth starting by recapping the recent history of the reduction in our capacity over the last weeks, giving more information about the areas of concern. I will then explain the action plan that we have put in place to get us back to normal.
Trafford Borough Council undertook an inspection of The J.Davidson Stadium in the run up to the Boreham Wood game and found a number of areas of concern around ground safety in the Golf Road End, The Fan Zone, The Popular Side and the Chequers End. As a consequence, each of these areas saw a reduction in capacity or complete closure. We very quickly performed some more straightforward repair works to allow the front section of the Golf Road immediately behind the goal to be open against Boreham Wood, and started the process of scoping the remaining improvement works. As a consequence of this, our capacity for the game was set to 3019.
The formula to set the capacity of sports grounds uses two parameters, the “P factor” and the “S factor”; with the latter being applied to all regulated stands, which in our case is The Pop Side, the Golf Road and the Main Stand. The S Factor for Boreham Wood was set at 0.3.
We attracted an attendance of over 2200 for Boreham Wood, continuing the superb support you have given us all season, and you adapted to the changes to the normal matchday experience brilliantly, and the atmosphere last Saturday was excellent.
However, it is clear that there were issues on the day, particularly with the stewarding. Trafford Borough Council were at the game to review how our processes and matchday operations worked in practice and they correctly identified our shortcomings.
As a consequence of this, on Monday, further discussions took place between the club and the council. At one point the club erroneously reported a reduction in capacity to 2200. This was due to our misunderstanding from a conversation earlier in the day. Later in the day, Trafford BC held a call with the Altrincham FC board to outline the level of their concerns and the severity of the actions that were needed to be taken to ensure supporter safety at the Gateshead game on the following night.
At that time we took tickets off sale, having sold 1390 to that point. The concerns about the stewarding had reached such a level that there was a serious discussion about having to play the game behind closed doors. Strict guidelines were laid down by Trafford BC which we had to meet in order to ensure the game could be played in front of any fans at all.
We took immediate action. We replaced the company who had been providing stewarding and brought in two highly-regarded organisations to replace them whilst also appointing a new Chief Steward reporting into the Safety Officer. This action, plus the addressing of a couple of other issues allowed us to announce late on Tuesday that the game could go ahead in front of spectators. Our S Factor was reduced to 0.1, and this meant that all those who had already acquired tickets would be able to attend the game. The way the capacity was divided between the stands on the safety certificate, issued late on Tuesday took the Golf Road and Popular Side out of the equation but did allow a greater capacity in the Main Stand. The majority of Altrincham fans were housed on the Chequers End, with another group in front of the Community Sports Hall.
Several hundred Alty fans were unable to attend the game, and those that did were unable to enjoy the game as normal, including all the fans on The Chequers End not being able to use the Community Sports Hall bar before the game and at half time. This is unacceptable and on behalf of the board, I would like to apologise to all of you who were affected by these restrictions.
The Gateshead game represents the lowest ebb, and this was caused by to a large extent the proximity of the games on Saturday and Tuesday. There was not enough time to resolve the issues raised from the Boreham Wood game in time for the Gateshead match.
Let me now explain the steps we have taken and continue to take in order to get back to something approaching normal. And like the problems, these initiatives are separated into process and ground activities.
As I said, we have brought in a new stewarding structure for match days, with two new organisations providing the boots on the ground. This goes a long way towards addressing the shortfalls identified at the Boreham Wood game. In addition to this, we are reviewing our operations manual and our procedures more generally to ensure they conform with the Sports Grounds Safety Authority “Green Guide” and are fit for purpose for a club that now attracts over 2000 on a regular basis, and with the opportunity to set new records over Christmas and the New Year.
On the ground improvements side, we have been working with structural engineers in defining a programme of work to address the issues on the ground. Trafford Borough Council have issued a further report to us today. Our first target is to bring the Golf Road end of the Popular Side back into use, as the works needed there are less extensive than the other parts of the ground. There is a possibility this will be done in time for the Southend United game. The work at the back of the Golf Road end will follow, and this will help us scope the replacement of the Golf Road exterior wall. Work will also commence on the Popular Side stand nearest the Chequers End as this does require some more substantial work. At this time we will repair the closed off section at the end of the Chequers End. Work on the Fan Zone will see the provision of running water to the area and further construction works to move us forward.
Our aim remains to have all essential ground works completed before the Christmas fixtures.
One last issue needs addressing – the investigation into Altrincham Football Club was indeed triggered by an anonymous email to Trafford BC. The board have discussed this at length and are very disappointed that the individual didn’t feel they could talk directly to one of us. This has led us to review our governance and our operating model. It needs to be easier for our staff, volunteers, fans and in fact any stakeholder to raise issues with the board, as we take ultimate responsibility for the running of the club. We will continue to hold the Q&A sessions we have over the last couple of years and there is an opportunity next Friday night to meet and ask members of the board questions. We must prevent a recurrence of this situation and we will make the necessary changes to avoid a repeat.
Let me be completely clear however. The issues raised to the Council that triggered this process and the further issues that have since been identified are ones that need to be addressed – and need to be resolved. Your board takes safety very seriously and this programme of work is our highest priority.
We are moving forward as a club, and you all know our ambitions. We are finding that we are having to change a lot of how we do things as we grow. This episode is a stark reminder of how much has to change, and how quickly. We never want to be in a position where we let down our supporters again, and we thank you for your patience and understanding at this time.