BY B. STEWARD (real name and club provided)
A day out at the match has many different rituals for fans – a visit to their favourite pub, a quick visit to the bookies to get that hopeful accumulator on or even something as bizarre as wearing your lucky pants you were gifted from a well-known Irish bookmaker. There are other match day rituals, though, that some may take for granted, the preparations behind the scenes to get each and every game underway. From the groundsmen, the cleaners and the caterers to the programme vendors, police, first aid crews and matchday stewards.
But who are these mystical bodies in the high-vis jackets that check your bags and belongings before you get into the ground; that confiscate your vodka laced Lucozade that you thought you could get into the ground by saying you were diabetic; that get asked bizarre questions on any subject to do with the club and its history and that try to assist fans who are visiting from far off shores with only a limited grasp of the English language? To be honest, like me, just ordinary every day folk.
I started work as a matchday steward at an SPL club a few months ago given that I have always been a football fan and wanted to feel that I was doing something useful approximately every other weekend. One bonus is that it means I get to taste the atmosphere of game day without any cost and as I don’t work at the club that I support, I can do so without worrying too much about what is happening on the pitch, after all, my job is to ensure the people in the stadium are looked after and are able to watch the match in safety.
Matchday routines for the stewards involve reporting to the ground usually about 2 ½ hours before kick-off to check in with the senior security staff and get togged up for the day. Matchday briefings take place to ensure everyone gets wind of how many fans are likely to turn up, the identity of any VIP guests, the names of police commanders, SPL match delegate, the officials and any concerns there might be with them if they have been involved in some controversy involving the home club in the past. The SPL now also has a female assistant referee and any misogynistic or outright sexist behaviour towards female officials is ill advised as it could result in ejection from the stadium. Yes, like it or not, football is being dragged into the 21st century and largely, fans are respectful of anyone who is actually working at the match – though their team’s and the opposition’s players and management are not necessarily included as those “working” and therefore worthy of outright respect! There are some very unsexy chores as well, like ensuring the toilets have been stocked with the requisite materials and are in working order. The role of a steward will then vary depending on whether duties will continue outside or inside the ground prior to kick off.
When inside the ground, the most common duty is helping those who maybe unfamiliar with the stadium to find their seats. Simple when this is done in English but when you have fans from Japan, China, Korea and other far flung parts of the world, patience and understanding and a smile will help you get your messages across. As I mentioned earlier, outside the ground you are simply trying to make sure that the safety of all will be respected when inside and cursory bag checks are done to ensure that no glass or plastic bottles are allowed in or cans or flares/fireworks and all other manner of items that could be described as “dangerous”. Taking a Fruit Shoot bottle off a child is not always an easy task but it has to be done. So the job of the steward pre-match can be varied, interesting and most of all engaging and my own view is that everyone is at the ground to enjoy themselves so having a smile on your face and a pleasant demeanour is all part of the role of any steward.
Every steward will have a designated role when the match has started, some will be pitchside, some in the stands and some allocated to the tunnels and gangways under the stands where all the refreshment bars are located. I have been fortunate in assignments to date as where I am positioned is right next to the away team dugout so I get to hear quite a bit of the conversations that go on between subs, coaches, the manager as well as the banter and occasional insults that are voiced from the home team supporters. Did I say occasional? Yep, my tongue is firmly in my cheek. Interaction with media representatives is regular too as they seek to get in for pre-match interviews with the respective management teams. All controlled as well and they don’t get any favours if not properly badged up and also wearing a high-vis vest.
Once the match is underway, to a certain degree, the pressure is on. Events on the park pretty much dictate how the crowd will behave. An incident free match and you tend to have a happy crowd if the result has gone the right way. Dodgy decisions, bookings, red cards, goals conceded etc all see the mood swing of the average fan shift more than a politician’s moral compass. So you have to be alert to what is going on around you without actually watching the game. Keeping in touch with team leaders to let them know of any concerns, taking advice from colleagues on people who may need to have a more watchful eye kept on them and most of all, ensuring no one gets on to the pitch or close enough to the occupants of the away dugout to do any harm. 99.9% of the time, there are no issues but the presence of the stewards is necessary for the other 0.1% of times. Verbal abuse towards officials, players and benches is part and parcel of the experience but there is a fine line between letting off steam and actually being threatening so assessing the behaviour of anyone that might be seen to be getting out of line is ongoing during a match.
Being within earshot of the away bench has been insightful as a football fan. Much of their discussions are exactly like what the fans discuss as the match goes on. Where things are going right or wrong, changes that might need to be considered, who is having an off day and so on. You also hear tactical advice being passed on – sadly on time wasting. When you hear the subs passing a message to a player to go to the other side of the pitch as he is soon going to be substituted, you lose a bit of heart but understand when you are hanging on for a victory or a draw, some underhand tactics might be necessary. What you don’t expect to see is guys coming off the pitch after playing for an hour or so, flinging on a jacket to stay warm then promptly opening a bag of Haribo sweets (Minstrels have also been seen). To maintain a bit of excitement during the game, I play a game of expletive bingo to see how many swear words will fall from the manager’s mouth: I’ve not got the jackpot yet but one boss was very close to helping me scream HOUSE!
Half time and full time tend to be the occasions where most autograph hunters try to get to the tunnel to grab a signature or a selfie from their idols. Again, stewards are not there to stop this happening, they are there to ensure the player is not harmed. What has surprised me is the variance in age between the youngest and oldest people I have seen fighting for that coveted spot by the tunnel wall. The lengths some people will go to……probably the equivalent of having a stalker inside the stadium for some players.
Thus far into the role, every match has passed off without notable incident and it is pleasing that this is the case as like anyone in a security role, your ambition for yourself at the end of any shift is to go home alive (or was that just in for Chicago cops in The Untouchables?). Post-match routine is pretty straightforward. Once the stands are clear, a sweep is done with stewards checking for any breach of banned items being brought into the ground (cans, bottles) and also for lost property. A swimming club membership card and a t-shirt bought at the club shop are as about as exciting as it has got for me. When that is done, time to sign out and go home.
So a match in the life of a steward is, I am sure, about as exciting as you thought it would be. For me, being an integral part of ensuring all fans are safe and enjoy their day out without fear or harassment of any kind is rewarding rather than exciting. And seeing familiar faces at home games, getting to know them and chatting about the game itself is all part of being a member of the great football family. We might stand in your way occasionally, we might block your view and we might nick your carefully prepared cocktail before you get into the ground, but all in all, we’re there to help you enjoy the whole matchday experience as best we can.