Distorted: the Times's portrait of Town fans

Cod Almighty | Article

by Barry Whittleton

21 February 2022

The Times's coverage of fans at Notts County conformed to a set agenda and distorted the truth. Baz argues the board should have checked the facts before responding

There was a lot of positivity following Town's excellent win and performance at Notts County. Nottingham was thronged with our fans, singing and in general good humour. I travelled to the game by train and I saw no hint of trouble of any kind, on the way there, at the game itself or on the way home.

It was then with some surprise that I viewed the video posted by a Times journalist [link behind paywall], Matt Lawton, the following Monday. I filed it under hyperbolic bullshit and despatched it to the mental wastepaper basket of my head. There it would have stayed forever, except that it prompted the board of Grimsby Town to issue a statement. It describes how the "perspective of the journalist... distorts the picture of our town" but otherwise it appears to accept many of the claims made at face value.

Lawton was embedded for the weekend with Nottinghamshire police, the head of the Football Intelligence Unit also in attendance. He had a story to write and an agenda, and many of the claims he made are questionable.

When the new shareholders took over the club they promised to consult us and generally treat us better than the turnstile fodder we had become under the previous regime. In that spirit, they could and should have issued a holding statement to ascertain the circumstances and context of the Times's footage

He says a train was trashed and had to be taken out of service after carrying Town fans to Nottingham. Footage shows a carriage littered with discarded beer cans and the claim is made that seats were soaked in urine. The guard was traumatised after a horrific journey. If so, that was not the result of any action by Town fans.

The train operator, East Midlands Railway, had been warning through the week that a high volume of passengers were expected that day, advising non-football fans not to travel and promising that they would be providing extra carriages, thus encouraging football fans to use their services. Later, for the return journey, East Midlands Railway provided a six-carriage train and seven buses to ferry Town fans home and there were no issues. But for the outward journey there was just one extra carriage. The result was a train dangerously overcrowded, passengers jumping off at every stop to allow others to squeeze themselves on, pushed ever closer into the aisles. Checking tickets would have been impossible: the guard only left her cab at stations, and any abuse she received may have been from the passengers left stranded at every stop from Barnetby onwards.

The claim that seats were soaked in urine is only possible if passengers were prepared to sit in their own piss, as there was no room otherwise. The train had just one working toilet, and nine bins with a capacity which experience tells me is exceeded by five bottles of Peroni. If the train arrived in Nottingham in an unserviceable state, it was because East Midlands Railways were guilty of massive profiteering, endangering the lives of the paying public and treating Town fans and others on the train no better than cattle.

Lawton claimed that rail operators put on football specials which fans shun as they are not allowed to drink on them. This was a complete lie. I travel by train to every away game where it is possible. There are countless times when a special train would have been filled had it existed. The simple fact is the last special I can remember was to Bolton in about 1983. The current rail infrastructure simply does not have the spare capacity for them.

The video then goes on to talk of a haul of flares and five bags of cocaine seized from passengers arriving in Nottingham. Flares are an intrinsic part of fan culture all over the world except in the UK and I simply don't get the authorities' opposition to them here. A police officer described a 13-year-old boy smuggling drugs for older members of the group. The article failed to clearly state this did not involve Town fans. While the Town board's statement refers to the wider social issues concerned, it nevertheless reinforces the impression that fans having a few cans on the way to a game constitutes alcohol abuse. In fact, five bags of coke from at least 900 fans on two trains is hardly proof of endemic drug use. It begs the question: why did Nottingham police have sniffer dogs at the station? They have never previously, and it just happened to be on the day they had an embedded journalist with them. A haul of five small bags of coke is a dire return for the resources they expended.

Nottingham police seemed far more confrontational than normal. On leaving the train I stood waiting for my fellow travellers. I was instantly pushed in the back and had "Football that way" bellowed in my ear by an officer. I pointed out that I was waiting for my partner and friends and then to use the toilet, having been denied that privilege for two and a half hours.

Had the board talked with fans I'm sure they would have received many more similar accounts of our experiences. What efforts were made to engage with fans who were at the game before it issued its statement on the Times's coverage? Was the Supporters Liaison Officer consulted? Were the fans' representatives on the board consulted? The silence from the Mariners Trust and the Football Supporters Association since the video was released has been defeaning.

When the new shareholders took over the club they promised to consult us and generally treat us better than the turnstile fodder we had become under the previous regime. In that spirit, they could and should have issued a holding statement to ascertain the circumstances and context of the footage. Instead, by highlighting the measures they are taking to eradicate poor behaviour and to support fans with alcohol or drug problems, they give credence to what they rightly described as an article that distorts the view of our town.

If you were at Notts County, were your experiences like the Times's or Baz's? Was the board's response to the coverage appropriate? Let us know