Football: May the Force be with the fan; Warning to football: Listen to supporters about issues that concern them or the Government may act

Ian Ridley takes the Mellor train to the provinces as the customers are heard
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THE day began for David Mellor with trepidation in the chilly early-morning darkness of St Pancras station, London. It ended, as midnight approached, with relief and encouragement over a winding-down beer and sandwich with the Minister for Sport Tony Banks in the warmly lit lounge of a Leicester hotel.

Mellor duly proclaimed it a success. Not only had the rumoured minibus carrying irate Bradford City fans failed to turn up at the first public forum of the Football Task Force to which Banks appointed him chairman, but, more importantly, there was a significant statement of support from the minister.

"Look," Banks insisted to me on the drive back down the M1, "the Task Force is an advisory not executive body but it has access to the very top of government. It is up to government to respond to its recommendations and we haven't set this up to ignore its proposals or let its reports gather dust on the shelves."

In response to criticism that the Task Force was toothless, Banks added: "If the Premiership clubs, especially, are half way decent, they should be seeing the straws in the wind." "The Premiership should be able to see that the government is taking the Task Force seriously and act before government does."

It was a barely veiled threat to football that if if does not put its house in order, and listen to fans on the issues that most concern them, then the government might be prepared to establish some sort of monitoring organisation. Music to Mellor's ears. "We have had suggestions from fans for a regulatory body," he said. "Call it Offoot, Offgoal or Offside or some such. Rail, gas and electricity are privatised these days but they still have such bodies. As football is the national game, maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea. Football has a responsibility to its customers and the way it treats them."

Such thinking was behind the establishing of the Task Force last July as fulfilment of the new Labour Government's manifesto statement about investigating the state of the game and acting on supporters' complaints and suggestions. This rampantly commercial sport was now a popular issue, and who better to head the new body than his fellow Chelsea supporter - even if as a Tory a strange bedfellow - the arch-populist, ex-MP, and host of the Radio 5 talk-in 606?

For some, Mellor is a middle-class figure of fun, his knowledge of football sketchy and his views and judgements questionable. Others advocate more power to his elbow. Like him or loathe him, he has an enviable rhino- skinned self-confidence, influence with key players in both football and politics and, it is hoped, an ability to get the job done.

Mellor set about assembling a team drawn from the game - the FA's chief executive Graham Kelly and Wimbledon player Robbie Earle for example - and supporters' organisations; "senior people willing to put their backs into it". The remit was to cover racism, the treatment of disabled fans and the rising costs of following the sport.

Initially, testimony was taken in London on racism and disabled access, and reports will follow in February. Thursday's trip to Leicester represented the first of 10 forays into the provinces to canvass opinion. Indeed, when the party - Mellor, Richard Faulkner and Peter Lee of the Football Trust - assembled at St Pancras at 7.30am it did have the look of a campaign trail.

"We wanted to have a collegiate style," said Mellor aboard the train, a bacon roll to the good. "But it's a risk-taking exercise. We just don't know what to expect from the fans this evening." The word was that it might be disrupted by supporters from Bradford backing their chairman Geoffrey Richmond in his mountain-out-of-molehill dispute with Mellor; the presenter had wondered aloud on his radio show if Chris Kamara's sacking had had any racial element.

There was a gentle start, though, with a photo opportunity organised by the genial Leicester East MP Keith Vaz - formerly Mellor's Commons "pair" - with local schoolchildren, touchingly supportive apart from the one who pointed out that "Man U beat you 5-3". It recalled the story about the boy observing the glad-handing politician and asking, "Mummy, what is that man for?"

At Filbert Street we found out. Mellor's group, now including the black referee Uriah Rennie and the FA's director of public affairs David Davies, heard detailed evidence for some seven hours from clubs, teachers, officials, supporters and local politicians from all over the East Midlands.

As Leicester's population comprises 30 per cent of Asian origin, racism was the day's primary issue. "It is fair to say we were shocked by some of what we heard," Mellor said later. "Particularly when it comes to what happens on park pitches. We don't simply want to endorse the many good schemes that are going on already. We want to go beyond the obvious, such as chanting from the stands, and look at why so few Asians come to football and why, when 15 to 20 per cent of players are black, less than one per cent of crowds are. And why don't we see black faces behind the scenes at clubs, in ticket booths, as club secretaries? Is there a glass ceiling?"

Throughout the day Mellor barely broke stride as he conducted a series of interviews on the "bungs" report, World Cup ticket prices and the issue of why Leicester City fans were so badly treated on a Uefa Cup expedition to Madrid. Communicat- ing the work is crucial.

He sometimes overdid it in the evening in Filbert Street's Premier Centre where the fans were supposed to have their say. "Anyway, you're not here to hear what I think," said Mellor, as prattle commenced, but he told them anyway; for such an active, opinionated mind, it would have been like asking a piranha not to bite. Only one of the audience was brave enough to enquire: "Can you just be quiet for a moment please, Mr Mellor?"

It was a motivated, articulate audience of around 300, more respectful than might have been anticipated in conveying to a panel that now included Graham Kelly and Banks a spectrum of opinion on issues wider than the narrow self-interest of many fans often permits.

Palpable, though, was the pre-occupation with ticket pricing and the disparity in the treatment of home and away fans. "We paid pounds 20 at Charlton," said one Nottingham Forest fan. "The home fans were chanting, 'we've only paid eight pounds'."

The lack of reductions for children was a huge concern for many, with a family of four often having to pay pounds 100 for tickets. "It used to be the people's game," someone said. "Now it's the game of the people who can afford it." Banks said he hoped the Task Force would come up with ideas for improvement, "perhaps the Robin Hood principle of getting people who can afford it to pay more".

You used to go to hear Banks speak for the same reason that you went to Stevenage v Newcastle; on the off-chance there might be an upset. Now he is more often onside when it comes to the party line. He may have his own views privately, but in the evening's only real moment of controversy, he repeated that there would be no change on all-seater stadiums, that terracing would not be allowed despite a majority here being in favour.

Ultimately, departing from the Task Force's remit, it became the 606 roadshow at times with such topics as refereeing standards, the televising of the FA Cup draw and the cost of World Cup travel packages all aired. To claims that this was merely a talking shop, however, Banks's comments about the potency of opinion and the government's willingness to act lent worthwhile edge to the day. Over the next six months, as the Task Force compiles its reports, there may be trade-offs here and there; better facilities for the disabled and concessions in ticketing for being left alone on matters such as television deals.

But football, Banks and Mellor insist, should be in little doubt of their determination to "empower" the fan, and the message does seem to be creeping through, with the FA acknowledging last week, in the wake of financial scandals, the need to set up a compliance unit.

Politics, they say, is the art of the possible. For football, the working man's ballet, serious probabilities look to be looming.

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