What a crazy weekend, the old cliche about England grinding to a halt as soon as we get a little bit of snowfall so true once again…but then why wouldn’t it? How much should we spend preparing for something that seems to happen once every two or three years? Anyway, enough of that, for me it just meant a busy sporting weekend became a quiet one…and then the repercussions.
Chesham United’s match v St Ives Town fell victim to a frozen goalmouth on Saturday, my son’s Under 14’s rugby match v Harpenden was doomed as soon as we woke up and saw the snow Sunday morning; so that just left Saracens v Clermont – A HUGE Champions Cup rugby match.
On looking at the roads and the weather, I quietly hoped it might be off – The A41, the M1, the M25; they were all gridlocked around the Hemel area. Yet before that I’d have to contemplate getting my car down and out from our snow covered, hilly, local roads. If we had tried to get to the game our normal 20 minute journey would be more like hours, if we had made it at all. Then we’d have to get back, and more than likely leave the car at the bottom of the hill and walk the last bit home. It wasn’t really appealing.
Mid-morning rumours on social media started to spread that the game was off. The SSA (Supporters Association) pretty much confirmed as much. So the dirty clothes came out, and the home decorating contined.
Then there comes the tweet from Saracens. Basically, don’t believe anything you hear or read until it becomes official. Ah, maybe the game will be on? Well, actually, not for one minute did I think it would be. I had no doubt the decision had been made, but it needed to be made official and other discussions had to go on before going public – Advising those who need to know first for starters, and presumably trying to make arrangements as to what will happen about the match (unlike Chesham games and football in general, you can’t just play it on the next available Tuesday or Wednesday night).
Inevitably the backlash begins and Saracens, the club, find themselves in the impossible position of pleasing everyone or anyone whilst doing absolutely everything possible (I don’t doubt) to keep everyone informed and make the difficult situation work for as many of the stakeholders as possible. Yes, I could quite easily join in some of the criticism, communication being a key gripe, but then I do have huge amounts of sympathy, and on a different scale, empathy.
The whole scenario reminds me of my relief that I no longer carry a position of responsibility at Chesham United like I did for so many years. It can be fantastic, and when you are able to do things that make a real positive difference it is rewarding beyond comparison, but when things happen beyond your control, people expect you to have all the answers immediately.
Obvously on a different scale to the current Saracens Champions Cup dilemma, but there have been instances over the years which enable me to allow a lot more sympathy for those behind the scenes than others may insticinctively offer.
The classic is a floodlight failure. The lights go out in the middle of a match and everyone looks to you as to what to do about it, with no instant fix the game is abandoned and supporters want their money back. Do you just give it to them? Situations like this, and how you handle them, can do huge things for your reputation, good or bad.
The standard solution is to give out tickets to the re-arranged match, and apparently, if it is in the second-half then you do not have to offer any refund (it was a while ago, I’ll happily stand corrected on that one)…but who has match tickets ready just incase the game is abandoned, so there is a delay, but the away fans just want to get home, their questioning what you are doing, your own fans are having an opinion on what you should be doing…Not a great experience.
Fortunaltely I think over the years Chesham United has handled these situations well and maybe even enhanced our reputation rather than discrediting it. Much of this is down to the fans who, a bit like a rugby crowd, are passionate about the concept of a non-league family, making the opposition feel welcome and ensuring they enjoy their time at our club. A reputation further enhanced by the recent handling of the 13-1 win over Merthyr Town when they turned up with a youth team following a financial situation that saw them have their entire first team unavailable for the match.
Perhaps the most famous example of the proverbial duck on water was the Redditch United affair when the game was abandoned after an opposition player punched the referee – How do you prepare for that? Well you can’t, and my family still mock me to this day for my very brief appearance on Sky Sports News following the incident when my comments to the cameras were edited down to almost that one line “What are you supposed to do?” (That whole affair still seems a little surrreal, as well as going down to the club, Sky Sports came along to the fields of Camelot Rugby Club on the Sunday morning to speak to me about the incident).
Anyway, on the surface, I thought we handled things extremely well, whilst paddling like mad under water behind the scenes. On the day we took great care to look after and protect the referee, supporting his decision and communicating to supporters what was happening. The opposition officials in the boardroom were very apologetic, embarrassed even, and keen to work with us for the best possible outcome…including payments for a damaged dressing room door.
Then it all went a bit wrong. At the time Chesham were 1-0 up, just been awarded a penalty, the opposition down to ten men and just over 12 minutes to go until the end…Match abandoned. The Southern League subsequently announced that the match must be replayed.
Now hold on there just a minute, are we the only ones that thought this was a potentially dangerous precedent being set here? Put bluntly, if you are losing a match, give the ref a slap across the face, the game will be abandoned and you can replay from scratch again? I can’t imagine any club realistically doing that, but what sort of message was that sending out? It felt like a huge injustice.
We therefore appealed to the FA about the decision and Brian McCarthy and myself headed up to Wembley for the hearing. Another quite bizarre experience being cross-examined as you appeal against the people sat in the room with you. We had already put forward the appeal in a carefully constructed document. We were now in one of the Wembley suites discussing the event and why we disagreed with the decision to replay the match.
After what felt like an eternity awaiting the outcome Brian and I eventually got called back in to be told that we had won the appeal and the result of the match would stand. We were the first and only Chesham United representatives to come away from Wembley with a victory!
Anyway, the outcome didn’t seem to go down very well with Redditch, possibly understandable that they were aggrieved not to be involved in the appeal process. Less understandable, and for me completely unforgivable, was some of the comments made about Chesham United in the local press at Redditch which contained, dare I say, blatant lies about the way our club acted on the day. Lies that painted a picture of Chesham United, our fans, and the way we handled the situation in a negative, totally and utterly inaccurate, way. Anger doesn’t come close to describing how I still feel about that…
The reality of what goes on and what is involved in handling difficult situations is unseen by the majority of people affected. That is a shame, but a reality. As social media shows these days, everyone has an opinion and if you listened to them all, you will never achieve anything. The challenge is making the best, the right decision for the integrity of the competition and those involved.
I have huge sympathy for the Clermont fans, for the club – I would be hugely frustrated and disappointed if the shoe was on the other foot, in particular the aforementioned apparent lack of communication, but I have no doubt that although on the surface there is a calm sense that nobody cares about the supporters, below the surface there are a good many people paddling like mad to try to make the right decisions, and in a way that satisfies all authorities, sporting and local, as well as both clubs and their supporters. So when I read some of the comments from Clermont officials, highly critical of Saracens…well, it just makes me think back to the Redditch situation and the comments made.
You just can’t win.