Policing at The Goldstone: The final years

During the last few years at The Goldstone, the Supporters’ Club developed a close relationship with David Ashley, the newly appointed match-day commander who had a really torrid start to his regime. Who can ever forget the last time we hosted Blackburn Rovers – a line of yellow-coated police officers across the north end of the pitch trying to prevent ‘incursion’ and because of the impression that made, many of us can’t even remember why they took such action! Liz asked him to try to describe how the problems at the Goldstone during our last years there affected his work and how he conducted the entire policing activity – within the bounds of legality!

To some, the Goldstone has gone but never to be forgotten. I am of course talking about the home for the best part of 100 years of Brighton & Hove Albion. Thousands of loyal, and some not so loyal, supporters have many memories – some fond, and some not so.

Those memories are also shared by some non-supporters but valued and necessary employees of various services required to operate on match days, and mid-week in preparation.

I recall my thoughts now as the long term Safety Officer for Brighton & Hove Albion having been so throughout the planning stage to operate at Withdean in 1997, to date. There are very many loyal and dedicated supporters who I believe refer to these (and the time at Gillingham) as the wilderness years.

As I said in my opening paragraph, for some, thoughts of Brighton & Hove Albion began over 100 years ago, but for me it all began properly in 1991. I was appointed the police Subdivision Commander at Hove, having been the Superintendent head of The Justice team for all of 6 weeks, head of Traffic for 9 months followed by two years as the sub Divisional Commander at Shoreham.

It was while I was at Shoreham the terrible tragedy at Hillsborough took place and following Lord Chief Justice Taylor’s report into the disaster; football at last took its responsibilities seriously. His study led to a lengthy, evidence backed and meaningful report and a tomb of production known as The Green Guide. One of the overriding issues from his report stressed that the emphasis of policing on hooliganism must be reversed and with the emphasis instead on public (especially supporter) safety.

Without going into too many details, the main thrust of this aspect of the report led to a reduction in policing levels commensurate with the introduction of a Safety Officer deemed to be a competent individual who was given overriding responsibility on match days for the safety of all at the stadium. Instead of numerous police officers deployed in and around the stands to monitor supporters for trouble, trained and identifiable stewards were deployed in their place to monitor crowd safety. Police remained present for obvious reasons, but over the years in far fewer numbers.

(The Taylor Report proposed a training package for stewards to undertake which was subsequently written by several organisations in Football and circulated to Clubs for their individual assessment of how the programme should be delivered).

It is upon this changing background that in 1991 I was transferred to Sussex Police’s Hove Sub Division which had responsibility for policing the Goldstone Ground. I had only been in the post a few weeks and still ‘learning’ some of the intricacies of policing at a football stadium when, following a particularly difficult match (see heading above!) I was aware of other bodies involved in ‘policing’ football, especially at Brighton and Hove Albion such as the Supporters’ Club. The police Match Commander (me) didn’t have all the answers and didn’t know all the questions either! With that in mind, prior to every match at the Goldstone I met with some key safety employees at the Club to share information, agree on tactics and deployment strategies. These meetings also, but on fewer occasions, involved the Supporters’ Club (our former Chairman Tony Parsons and Liz Costa were particularly involved in these ‘private’ and very useful discussions with David). I also met regularly with key management employees to agree on policing levels per match.

The Policing Body known as ACPO had many years earlier agreed that local police forces should meet with Clubs in their force area annually and agree policing levels based on a match categorisation of A, B, C and C+ with category A being the lowest level. The gradings were subjective and based on the possibility and/or the probability of the level of hooliganism (trouble) that could be expected. Today they also take cognisance of the quality of the Club’s Safety Officer and competence/training of the stewards. These are agreed at the beginning of the season, and in the case of Brighton & Hove Albion regularly revisited to ensure they reflect any changes that the Club’s position (home and away) might have or other intelligence received by the police.

Given that the police local commander could virtually dictate the levels proposed for policing the various categories, (albeit backed up with intelligence), and that the Club had to pay for those deployed within the ground, if follows that at the management meetings I met with some resistance to the levels of policing adopted at the Goldstone. I should say at this point that after my ‘initiation’ at the Goldstone, I learnt very early on to revisit policing levels and began reducing them at a very early stage of my tenure. (Supporters may recall that at this time the Chairman of the local Police Authority was none other than the Chief Executive of the Albion who THOUGHT he had total power!).

Supporters will know what befell the Club not long after I was appointed the local police commander; the management wanted to (and of course succeeded) sell the ground. The final two seasons at the Goldstone were the most turbulent, traumatic and troublesome two years that probably any Club has had to go through. Supporters’ groups wanted to demonstrate at every match their dislike of the Club’s owners and their front man, the Chief Executive.

The previous liaisons I had worked on with various key Club Associations (supporters, etc.) and employees came to the fore with every planned demonstration being brought to my attention. This enabled us all to work on the best way to deal with the issues to enable the demonstrations to take place with the safety of everyone in mind and allow the matches to take place, safely and on time. The acts by supporters to demonstration their opposition to planned actions of the Board were various and sometime novel. They included handcuffing an individual to a goal post, mass refusal to buy tickets, massing outside the Board entrance either before or after the match, issuing of hundreds of whistles (Liz still has hers, attached to her car key ring!) and many more. I should add at this time that almost without exception the planned demonstrations were all peaceful ones and not all were scheduled for match days

With team work and carefully planned strategies to meet each of the proposed demonstrations we were in the main able to say that everyone was able to express their feelings in support of their beloved Club. I do not recall that we had to arrest many, if any, people for their acts of opposition during this two year onslaught against Club management proposals.

Quite probably the issue of overt demonstration that will be remembered by most is the match against York City, the scheduled penultimate match of the penultimate season at the Goldstone which as planned by supporters was interrupted and stopped. This led to a full FA enquiry at which the Club was fined. The rematch was played lunch time on a Thursday with very limited spectator numbers. The actions of demonstration at that earlier match was predominantly an issue of safety as the planned stoppage was to be peaceful (as most were) and I declined to deploy extra officers, insisting that the Club employ additional trained stewards. I deployed officers to maintain the peace and advised the then Safety Officer on strategies he could adopt to prevent a pitch incursion and what should be considered in the unlikely event of him actually preventing supporters from gaining control of the pitch area. In the final analysis there were some minor injuries and it is possible (faded memory here) that certain over-the-top actions led to 2 or 3 arrests.

Without doubt as a police Match Commander, the most memorable game at the Goldstone was the final match ever to be played. It was the Albion’s penultimate match of the season, against Doncaster Rovers and relegation out of the football league was looming. All those with responsibility for Safety and crowd control management had a fairly good idea as to what to expect so far as the final protests against the Board were concerned.

From a Police Commander’s point of view, I ensured there were almost daily meetings with the key individuals I have earlier referred to. They included key leaders of the protests, Club management and of course the Supporters’ Club leaders. In addition, I met with the press and my senior command to ensure full and proper liaison with all essential bodies. I planned policing levels and strategies to the ultimate degree. As the senior officer responsible to ensure that there was no breach of the peace, to manage any potential threat to that peace and to assist the Club in maintaining a safe event, I devised plans to deploy 12 PSUs (police support units) , a total of 250 officers.

In addition, I had a small team operating outside the area of the Goldstone whose primary task was to arrest the main target of the venom of the supporters should he approach a pre-agreed no-go area (anywhere in Hove it could be perceived he was intending to attend the match!). This specific action I had agreed with my senior commanding officer, the ACC Operations who I additional tasked with sharing this information with the target of the supporters! (WELL DONE DAVID, YOU WERE A STAR!!!)

In the final analysis, each and every one of the officers on duty that day were deployed in and outside the ground in a peacekeeping role and there were no injuries, no arrests and the match was completed. At final whistle there was the inevitable pitch invasion as hundreds of fans each took their piece of something as a memento.

I did not get involved in the events at the Priestfield Stadium, albeit my football intelligence officers continued to work in the liaison role to maintain some contact with supporters. (For this we were eternally grateful to the likes of PCs Terry Hill, Al Goodall and currently Darren Balkham for their continued liaison with us, the supporters. We are the envy of many other clubs around the leagues who truly wish they had the same relationship with their own FIOs – but it has to be worked on and we have been ‘working on it’ for 20 years!)

During the final seasons at the Goldstone, the management were forever proposing alternative ‘nearby’ clubs to ground-share with. These included Portsmouth (the demo against this plan resulted in Liz joining the ‘elite’ club of banned supporters, and one of our most active fans being physically abused by the Chief Executive inside the ground!!) and Millwall and I was asked by the then new Chairman, now Life President (Dick Knight) if I would attend the Football League hearing and speak in support of the Club. This I did, but local police were overtly opposed to the proposals citing, inter alia, Brighton & Hove Albion’s recent history of protests etc. as the rationale for not permitting the ground shares.

My personal experiences in responding with others to the varied and many demonstrations of protest devised by the Club supporters led me to becoming recognised as a leading professional in such issues. I met with Crowd Control leaders of the Football Association and Football League and shared experiences with them and others. As a consequence, upon my retirement from the Police Service, I was invited to work with the FA as a Crowd Control Advisor and during the past 12 years I have visited many grounds in the South East of England and in Europe in support of the Safety and Crowd Control management teams.

Being a Football Police Match Commander was, of course, only part of my role as a Sub Division, ultimately Divisional Commander. During my tenure at Hove, Sussex Police reorganised and the Sub Divisions of Hove and Shoreham were merged. Football at Brighton & Hove Albion’s Goldstone Ground, albeit a very important element of my role, was by no means the only one. Although geographically the smallest Division in Sussex we had in excess of 200 officers and support staff to meet the demands of a very busy area. These demands included the policing for several months of demonstrations at the Shoreham Port when contractors were exporting livestock.

For most of my last few years I was one of a small group of trained firearms incident commanders. Along with many of my colleagues, I was pretty much on a 24-hour call-out for command functions generally on my own Division, but also County-wide on a six week cycle for the Cadre of firearms commanders. As the Chief Police officer of the Hove and Shoreham area my home number was available to numerous key people working and/or living on my division. There were frequent occasions, especially in the final Goldstone years, when the Chief Executive of Brighton & Hove Albion would call to ‘discuss’ an issue or two!

For the past 12 years I have worked with Brighton & Hove Albion as their match day Safety Officer. This was initially with Ecovert (previous ‘owners’ of Withdean) to whom I was also Safety Advisor. I still undertake this role but since Brighton & Hove Albion were successful in obtaining the rights to manage the stadium on match days, I perform this non match day role with the Club’s Operations manager.

I’ll finish this article with a thank you to all those I worked with as the Goldstone’s final Police Commander in ensuring a peaceful end to a very sad period in the Albion’s history and to those I work with now as your Safety Officer in endeavouring to manage a safe environment at Withdean.

I personally would like to thank David for his contribution to the last 20 years of our lives as supporters of the Albion. Without his help, advice and ‘cooperation’ many of the demonstrations were in danger of getting out of hand – his guidance left US with a reputation of being innovative, smart, devious and just downright well organised and we got plaudits from supporters world-wide. Many just couldn’t wait for our next ‘stunt’!

Sadly our future at The Amex does not include David in his current capacity – having had some health problems in the past couple of years, I think he has earned a very well earned rest but it is to be hoped that he will still be part of our future, somehow. For so long he was in the background, but there for a chat if needed. For example, when 5 of us decided on a fund-raising Turning our Backs on Gillingham walk from Priestfield to the Goldstone in March 1997 we consulted David. His advice was not to do it, for safety reasons, but he knew he actually could not stop us – strangely, during the walk it was evident that there was a regular ‘drive by’ cop car watching us! Can’t imagine why that was, can you?

We’ll miss you David – have a great retirement and thanks again.

Liz Costa

© Brighton and Hove Albion Supporters' Club 2011-16
All content supplied by the Supporters' Club and its members.
To contribute, please contact the website administrator