Fighting for fair play in the big freeze

Glenn Moore says fans should be compensated for fruitless journeys

As usual it seemed the only people who cared about the supporters were other supporters. We were standing in the car park at Highfield Road, it was 40 minutes before Coventry City and Woking had been scheduled to start their FA Cup third-round tie, and a City fan was passing comment.

"It's disgusting, appalling. Those poor people, they've come all this way." She was talking about the several thousand Woking fans who had driven through freezing fog for three hours only to find Wednesday night's match called off less than an hour before kick-off. Some supporters were already inside the ground. They were not happy, and who can blame them?

Nor were they the only ones. On their way back, the 27 coaches and countless cars loaded with Woking fans might have passed a similar convoy of Wrexham supporters making their weary way back from West Ham. That match had been called off because of fog at 5.30pm, too late for supporters engaged on a gruelling 500-mile round-trip.

Bad management? Or bad luck due to freak weather conditions? The clubs and referees involved will suggest the latter, but they should know better. They were warned because the events of the previous night were, if anything, worse.

At 5.30pm on Tuesday Brentford v Manchester City, Luton v Bolton, Watford v Oxford and Gillingham v Derby were on. Brentford was called off then, Luton an hour later and Watford a few minutes before kick-off time. At Gillingham they kicked off only for the referee, Paul Alcock, to decide the pitch was no longer playable after 66 minutes. Neither players, managers, spectators nor media agreed. A few players had slipped over in one corner but the pitch seemed tricky rather than dangerous.

In each case away supporters had made long and difficult journeys. "After what happened last night, you would have thought someone would have shown more sense," said Mike Bidmead, Woking's Ground and Safety officer on Wednesday. "Many of our fans have paid pounds 15 each for their coach trip."

Woking were particularly unhappy at Gerald Ashby's belated decision to call the match off. As Clive Walker noted: "Our players are part-time, they've all taken time off work to be here. It's a lot of money for them which they won't get back.

"We play on much worse pitches than that and were happy to play tonight. So were Coventry's players. It's the ref's decision, and he says players might be injured, but I can't see it."

Another Woking player said: "It's a joke. It's perfectly all right. It was embarrassing when he called it off."

Bidmead, a former Football League referee, thought the pitch playable. He added: "We are not going to win the FA Cup, we are in it to make some money. The police bill is pounds 15,000, we'll have to pay that twice now. Then there is the stewarding and all the other things, it all comes out of our profit."

Yesterday Ashby was unrepentant. "In my view the correct decision was made, some people would say better late than never." Ashby, having been assured by the club there was no need for an early inspection, arrived at 5pm. He looked at the pitch, waited an hour for a weather report (which suggested an evening temperature of -1C), then went back out. "I had doubts so I used footwear on it which increased my doubts. I spoke to both managers and, whatever they were quoted saying afterwards, I got the impression both had doubts. One said: `I'd rather you made the decision than me.'

"It is the hardest such decision I have made in 27 years of refereeing but you can't play on a pitch that is 75 per cent playable. There was a large area in the middle that was dangerous."

Geoff Chapple, the Woking manager, said that Graham Poll had permitted Coventry's recent match with Sunderland on a surface which was "10 times worse". Three days later Poll is said to have told Graeme Souness that his players would have to play "at 90 per cent" during Southampton's FA Cup tie at Reading. "Pitch inspections," admitted Ashby, "can be an area of inconsistency among referees."

Personally I was astonished, as I drove up through freezing fog, that there seemed no doubt about the match. Regular pitch inspections were announced at Leicester, Coventry expressed no concern. This was despite the state of their pitch for several recent matches, which can have gained only borderline decisions to play.

Coventry are one of a handful of Premiership clubs without undersoil heating. Unlike the others, they have not been recently promoted nor are they planning to move grounds. In the last two years Coventry have spent pounds 16.6m on players: undersoil heating costs between pounds 200,000 and pounds 300,000.

"We used to have it," said Graham Hover, Coventry's secretary, "but it caused a drainage problem and it was removed six years ago. At the moment we use frost covers and we feel the pitch was playable. I suppose we will have to look at installing undersoil heating again."

In an age of pounds 15m transfers and pounds 42,000 a week wages, it is ridiculous that some leading clubs are reduced to using mats, straw and suchlike to stage games. Undersoil heating ought to be compulsory in the Premiership, with promoted clubs given assistance from Sky Sports money to pay for it.

Another slice of that vast bucket of cash ought to be siphoned off to provide compensation for supporters who have lost time and money travelling to matches which are postponed at short notice. Fans are paying out more and more money in admission and travelling costs, and their goodwill cannot be milked forever. It is about time the game gave something back.

REFUNDS: HOW THE POLICIES VARY

Football

FA policy: If a match is called off before kick-off, spectators will be offered free admission to rearranged match. If called off after kick- off, then 50 per cent reduction for next game.

If spectator cannot get to rearranged game, then up to her/him to ask club for refund. FA official policy is that decision is up to the individual club.

Football League: Recommends that member clubs offer full refund if postponed before kick-off. Abandonment after kick-off: 50 per cent reduction for rearranged match.

FA Carling Premiership: No official policy but general guidelines are that once spectators are in the ground, regardless of whether match has kicked off or not, clubs make some form of generous compensation between 50 and 100 per cent.

Rugby Union

RFU official policy: No money will be refunded for matches at Twickenham or major RFU matches elsewhere. But if match can be staged at a later date, then the ticket is valid for admission to the rearranged game.

Cricket

English Cricket Board: For international matches (Test and one-day) they have the Rain Check Scheme: Up to 10 overs before play abandoned for day, a full refund; up to 24 overs, 50 per cent refund; 25 overs or more, no refund. No official policy as regards counties (up to individual clubs).

Middlesex and MCC: No spectators let in to Lord's unless and until play is guaranteed, so no one has parted with any cash in the first place. If play abandoned at any time thereafter, no refund.

Opera & concerts

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden: If one-off performance by a big star such as Pavarotti is cancelled, there would be a total refund. If a show has such a big star, the ROH puts a premium on the normal ticket price. So, if star pulls out, the ROH refunds the difference between the premium and the normal price. If a show is abandoned in the first act, then a partial refund is made. If no big star but lead singer's place taken (because of illness or whatever) by understudy then ROH assumes punters bought tickets for the performance not the performer, so no refund.

Royal Albert Hall: Generally happy for total refund if a specific concert has to be cancelled, although if an alternative date can be rearranged then tickets become valid for that.

Theatre

Old Vic, London: If performance cancelled for whatever reason, a total refund, or (and they prefer this option) replacing the ticket purchased with one for a subsequent night. In the event of a show being abandoned because of power cut, flood or whatever, a total refund, because covered by insurance.

Stoll Moss Theatres (Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, Her Majesty's, Haymarket, The Palladium and seven others): Where a ticket is purchased to see a show or play and a star's name appears above the title, and that star's understudy takes over because of illness, then there will be a full refund or an exchange for a ticket on a night when the star will be on stage. If a show is abandoned before getting under way, full refund or exchange for another night; if show abandoned part way through then full refund or exchange.

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