Chief Executive Officer, Khaled El-Ahmad sat down with members of the fan engagement group on Thursday night, alongside colleagues Beth Sefton and Andrew Clark to discuss pressing issues at the Club.
Below is a transcribed summary of the evening.
AC (Andrew Clark - Head of Marketing & Communications): “We’d like to start by thanking you guys, and every supporter really, for your patience and cooperation in regards to the closure of the West Stand.
“Those fans affected who’ve been down to the Club, whether that’s to be relocated or seek a refund, they’ve been a pleasure, and I’m sure Beth can agree with that. Everyone has been understanding, on a face-to-face standing, they’ve all been incredible.”
BS (Beth Sefton - Barnsley Football Club): “I really want to reiterate that. On behalf of us all who are front of house, or in the Box Office, every single person who has come down, either to be relocated or to get a refund, the way they’ve conducted themselves is exemplary. They were so courteous, so polite and even thanked us for our time and efforts.
“I really want to thank them for that, because we appreciate there’s a lot of emotion involved in this. But they have been fantastic with us as front of house staff.”
WEST STAND CLOSURE
AC: “Just to go into the reasons then for the closure.
“There have been a number of statements or letters released, there is speculation circulating around newspapers, in the media and amongst supporters. But this is essentially a culmination of a number of different factors.
“But to expand on the reasons, first of all, something came to light in early October. And it was based on a fire risk assessment. So right now, there are holes in the floor of the West Stand, the upper tier of it. If you were to walk around that area, you’d see the issue immediately. And that’s not a risk that we see worth taking.
“Then, I don’t know if you may have noticed this last season, but the exterior wall, the red brick wall, part of that collapsed. And I believe that destroyed two of the turnstiles, is that right, Beth?”
BS: “Well, because the turnstiles are built into that back wall, the red brick wall, and it’s all one structure, when that came down last season, it affected the rooves of a couple of the turnstiles.”
AC: “But that was rebuilt. It was rebuilt in time for your return to Oakwell in the play-off first leg against Swansea City. But again, we weren’t aware of what the damage might have been further down. This happened on the South/West corner, but that wall has been there for over a hundred years and so when assessing the risks and taking everything into account, we cannot be sure about the safety of that structure, as it stands there today in its present form.
“So that’s part of the stand, of the issues that we are looking into. Like I say, it’s not one clear issue, there are a number of problems that when all joined together have necessitated this decision to close the stand.
“Moving on, every year we have a Barrier Report, across the entire stadium. It’s basically about barriers, handrails, walls, anything you’d lean upon, or reach out for in terms of security. And based on the advice we’ve been given from that, we need to make a lot of amendments.
“And whilst in the stands built in the 1990’s, that would be a much simpler task, with the age of the structure we’re dealing with, it’s a little bit more complex. Basically, that work needs to be outsourced. It’s not something we can do as a club, in terms of the maintenance department, it needs professional work doing there.
“As I said before, the culmination of things, well, we’ve also had a number of complaints about the stand in terms of it being fit for purpose in regards to the Equality Act 2010. These were reported to Level Playing Field. These came to light in mid-September, and to provide background on this, they were relating to accessibility.
“These were issues with the toilet facilities, the high food counters, the turnstiles and a number of other access issues.
“After going through these with Level Playing Field, we then did our own audit and as you can imagine, there are so many problems with the stand in terms of access. There are hidden steps, there are waist-high turnstiles that are not ideal for wheelchair supporters, access for disabled supporters, and so on.
“There are lots of things basically, that we’ve looked at and that we need to address. And I think Beth had a great analogy when we were speaking just an hour or so ago…”
BS: “I love an analogy. And someone once said to me, that once you know something, you can’t un-know it. So whilst people might say ‘well, the stand has always been like this’ and just expect us to crack on, when red flags like this are raised, and people tell you ‘this’ might happen, and you need to ensure it doesn’t, then it made me think. And here’s the analogy..
“I drive around in my car, it’s an old car, and we tow a caravan up and down the country as well, we head to the coast as a family. If someone said to me ‘your brakes on the car are dodgy and you need to get them checked immediately’ would I still put my kids in the car and head off to the seaside?
“No I wouldn’t. I would have them looked at, I’d get professional opinion and if they were dodgy, I’d be getting them fixed.
“For me, this is that same scenario. Nobody has condemned the West Stand. It’s just that until we get certain things looked at, certain issues confirmed, or issues sorted, particularly for Khaled who has to put his name to it, we have to make sure that everything is 100% right.”
KEA (Khaled El-Ahmad - Chief Executive Officer): “I wanted Beth and Andrew to drive this discussion this evening, because they know more about the club, about the West Stand than I do. But I’m saying this as a human being, not a CEO. I’m not signing anything if there’s even a 3% risk of someone getting injured. I’d rather sit here and have these discussions than deal with an accident.
“Having to read an email from a father about his disabled son, about how, in 2021, we cannot accommodate a disabled supporter, I can’t accept that.
“I made this decision.
“When I got all of the information together, I made it. There is no power play behind it, all these rumours about discussions with the council or a new stadium, no. I’m sitting here and I’m telling you, I made the decision. When I collected all this information.
“It’s my name on the certificates. It’s about me declaring that I can ensure the safety of thousands of people. And I feel that I cannot, so I made a tough decision. It’s not been easy. I put my own colleagues who are here with me, I put them in a tough situation, and myself in that same situation.
“But I made the decision because I don’t want the car to crash.”
AC: “There have also been the issues with crowd management that were referred to in previous communications. And we don’t just mean the lack of stewards which we’ve made clear from the start of this season. But there has been an issue in this particular stand with supporters standing in areas whilst drinking alcohol.
“Some fans are basically buying a beer at the concourse counter, and then moving to the right and standing in view of the pitch. It’s just not allowed, and this has caused problems this season in the West Stand.”
BS: “People do similar in the Ponty End, where they get a pint and they’re in the corner part but there’s fencing there that stops them being able to view the playing surface. So that isn’t an issue. But this season, there are lots of people in the West Stand congregating in that area with alcohol and it’s just against the law. We’ve been picked up on it.
“It’s West Stand specific, it can’t happen in any other stand. But it’s been flagged.”
PM (Paul McQuillan - Hoyland Reds): “One statement suggested safety issues, the next one stated operational issues. Now, a lot of people have assumed it’s purely because of the stewards, and that because there are now more tickets for away fans, it’s all about money, it’s purely a financial reason. I feel the media side of this has been poor, that there needed to be a better explanation from the outset.”
KEA: “If we’ve not been clear, and we’ve made a mistake with that, then we’ll hold our hands up and look to do better next time.
“We want to continue to get better, always.
“But what should we have done? Should we have just responded with the same line about safety, or should we have remained quiet?”
PG (Paul Gallagher - BBS & Supporters Trust): “You should have explained the reasons at that point.”
KEA: “We didn’t go into every detail in such a way because we wanted to do it like this, face-to-face in a public forum with our fans. And also, we didn’t want to point out each detail so that without the way of reply, people made assumptions. Because the one thing I don’t want, that we as a club don’t want, is a blame game.”
PG: “I think you’ve created a vacuum, by not answering, not explaining the reasons.”
KEA: “So a clearer media statement from the outset.”
PG: “We’ve had this before with the 21-word Daniel Stendel statement. It’s radio silence and it creates a vacuum where rumour and speculation takes over. We’ve made all this progress as a club over the last year or so and we’re right back to square one. If you’d outlined the reasons from the start, I don’t think things would be as bad in terms of how the fans are feeling.”
AC: “There’s a lot of different people involved, a lot of stakeholders and it comes back to the point Khaled made about a blame game. We were making a call as a club in a raw moment. If we got that wrong, then again, it’s something we can look to improve at in future.”
KEA: “You’re right, Paul. We could have done better. But we were very clear. I spoke personally with the council before we went public. I showed them the press release, they knew all about it. I spoke to Jean Cryne, I personally called Paul Conway. Nobody knew until I informed them. They were all surprised, but then I explained why the decision had been made.
“Andrew is being more diplomatic by saying stakeholders, but I didn’t want to upset the police, the firefighters, the ambulance people. That’s why we tried to say as little as possible in the initial moment, but I can see from your perspective that by doing that it gave the perception that there was more going on behind closed doors.”
NB (Neil Bullivant - Courthouse Reds): “Why can’t you use the other half of the away end, it’s split down the middle for that reason isn’t it?
“Because there are people, some are 70 and 80-year-old and they’ve mobility issues and climbing the East Stand or sitting uncovered in the lower tier is not very good is it?”
BS: “If it was a question of mobility, putting fans in the away end would be sending them all the way around the stadium, to get to the North/East corner. And, at this moment in time - because it’s something that we are going to look at - those North/East turnstiles don’t work. They are not operational at the moment.”
KEA: “I can promise you, that any solution you can think of, we’ve already thought of it ourselves. On the day of the decision being made, we all sat together as staff and discussed the way forward.
“In terms of the North Stand, I actually suggested that myself, to put our fans in that side of the stand. But I also wasn’t aware of the issues with doing that. Whether that be the turnstile issues, the security or two sets of supporters merging together. So we continued to discuss alternatives, we all had our opinion and then planned our way through this.”
AC: “In terms of when stakeholders were made aware, I think I’m right in saying it was at least 24 hours before the announcement that everyone involved was notified. And by stakeholders, I mean blue lights, the council, the ownership group. They were all made aware, either by phone call or email.
“On that day, we posted out letters to all those supporters impacted by the closure, so that fingers crossed, they received their letter on the day we publicly announced the closure. They were also emailed. Once we released the statement, we emailed every season ticket holder too. Then, the statement went live and we were - naturally - inundated.”
KEA: “I want to thank my colleagues for everything they’ve done throughout this tough process. We had everyone in the office, filling a thousand envelopes. We’ve had extended hours, accommodating people where we can, opening up the stadium so people can find a new seat.
“I think they also need the credit for stepping up, because it was a difficult time and the staff here delivered, it was admirable work from them all.”
NB: “Have we lost season ticket holders?”
BS: “We have I’m afraid, and I should have had the figure before I came here, and we’ll get that at a later date, but we have unfortunately, we’ve lost a number of fans who literally only wanted to watch the games from that stand.
“It’s not good, Neil. It’s very sad, but we had to take this decision, for the reasons we’ve explained.”
AW (Andrew Wilson - Seasonal Member): “So who is going to be paying for all of this work that is needed? Is it the council, the Cryne's or Chien Lee and Paul Conway?”
KEA: “I don’t look at it like Cryne’s and council, Chien and Paul. I look at it as Barnsley Football Club. So I’ve got a meeting scheduled with Shokat Lal, the executive director at Barnsley Council. And we’ll be looking at the best way to move forward with our action plan in terms of opening back up the West Stand, and what we can do.
“And whilst I can’t say everything, the discussions we are having are not just about the West Stand. But they are hopefully going to be of real benefit to the Club. I can assure you, that from my perspective, everything being done is for the betterment of Barnsley Football Club.”
JHH (John Henry-Howard - East Dene Reds): “Why is it that media, the press and journalists are still able to sit in the West Stand?”
AC: “The West Stand will still be functioning to a degree. As you say, the media will still be in there. So on Sunday, you’ll see the press box relatively full, the gantry will have cameramen and analysts up there.”
KEA: “My initial thought was to close down the whole thing. Everybody. But then the EFL started calling, then TV, then radio and so we had to speak again with all stakeholders about how many stewards would be needed versus the risk assessment.
“I made the decision that no directors could sit in there, and so we were looking at seats in the East Stand upper tier. But the response from the league was that it wasn’t possible, they have to be seated - home and away directors - in central positions. They need inside and outside seating.
“So then I had to backtrack a bit. Because also, if we were moving directors into the East Stand, that would have affected another 100 fans or so. So that’s the honest truth. Will it look good? No. But on Sunday, yes, you’ll see 40 or so people in that central part of the stand.”
NB: “What about the U23’s matches played on Oakwell, will we be able to open a different stand?”
AC: “Yes, we’ll open one of the other stands when they play on Oakwell.”
NB: “Are we any closer to watching them on the training pitches?”
AC: “That’s all down to the fact that it’s a red zone during this pandemic. All the access points, the training ground and the walkways, it’s only for those of us at the club who are part of the red zone part of the testing programme.”
PM: “It’s all about communication. Because for me in my head, what you’ve explained here tonight is appeasing me, I’m understanding the reasons. But you need to make all this clearer and simpler at the start, because lots of people aren’t getting the correct information. That’s how rumours start and so information like this needs to go out so all can be aware of the information.”
KEA: “I think we’ve been transparent where we can be, at each particular point.
“I want to maintain good relationships where I can maybe take the heat now, for the better vision of hopefully what can come here at Barnsley Football Club in many years ahead.
“This has been a very complicated and tough decision. But if we play our cards right, we are hopefully going to come out of it in better shape than we did before.”
STEWARDING & SECURITY
AC: “Since the start of the season, in terms of the stewarding, the Club has tried a number of strategies to drive recruitment. There has been mixed success with this. But we’re making progress and we’ve utilised other companies and we’ve asked away clubs if they can bring their own stewards too.
“In the first four games, we didn’t hit the minimum numbers required due to people not turning up, or phoning in sick, which is a non-compliance. Discussions with the local authority have ended up with an action plan drawn up and a warning that if this is not addressed quickly, it’s likely that enforcement will be taken.
“The last two fixtures were much better, and we’ve hit those numbers mainly due to our change in strategy. There have been other stadiums that were close to having their capacity reduced, because this is a nationwide issue in terms of stewarding, following the impact of the pandemic.
“There’s no doubt that not having stewards in the West Stand will help in the short-term. But we must stress, this is not a factor in its closure whatsoever. But we are getting better, our long-term strategy will see us through this period and our new safety officer, Paul Davis has been working miracles to keep us ticking over.”
KEA: “I think people should trust the Club and its staff a little more, rather than assuming that an extra £90,000 from away ticket sales is worth all the hassle and the extra work that has been moving over a thousand people. We’ve got just the one big derby game here that could be sold out in terms of the away end.
“It just doesn’t make sense. We actually lose money with the people taking refunds that we offered after closing the West Stand. It’s not about making money. Because as chief executive, I’m making a financial decision that isn’t making any more money.
“As for Beevor Court, Barnsley Football Club had absolutely no say in this. It came off the back of a report from the inquiry into the bombing at the Manchester Arena, which concluded in July I think.
“We’re also going through lots of security upgrades at the stadium. I’ve changed the way that players can enter the stadium, we’re installing lots of new cameras for safety reasons. We were flagged as orange on the terror threat, because we were seen as too easy to gain entry from that North side of the stadium.
“The new cameras are costing a lot of money, but it has to be done. You have to understand, the academy is home to lots of children. So there is so much more to do to make sure it’s a safe and secure place for my colleagues, for players, the staff and of course, for our fans.”
HL (Heather Linney - SLO): “What about the rumour I heard at Reading, that we are moving to the New York Stadium, to Rotherham?”
KEA: “We are moving? Right, I didn’t know this. I don’t do social media and rumours.”
NB: “I can assure you that if we were to ever move away from Oakwell, there’d be barely any fans watching. Whether it be Rotherham, Doncaster, you’d be losing 95% of your supporters.”
AC: “Before the pandemic, we had the FanZone, the family zone and Toby Tyke’s kids club. And we’ve got good news on those reopening in the near future. We’ve to continue discussions with stakeholders, and of course, in terms of the FanZone, with the Supporters Trust.
“But now, with a reasonable amount of stewards, we can resume the majority of these offerings. And we’ll be releasing further news on when each will be reopening. But in terms of the kids club, that should be back up and running after the Sheffield United fixture. And the activations in the family stand will resume following the Hull City game.
“In regards to the vouchers, for Reds Reserved+ members, to open up on that debacle, we encountered printing delays, and then for a number of reasons, the Box Office were incredibly busy, with the full season card reprint, and then the issues we’ve just experienced this last couple of weeks.
“And then when they returned from the printers, to put it bluntly, they weren’t good enough. They were embarrassing to look at. So we’ve had them re-done. Khaled wanted them to look better, and to offer more also.”
KEA: “When they came in late and weren’t good enough, we took the decision to have them changed, not only to look better, but in terms of offering money off with some of our partners also. Because we wanted everyone who is a member, to get the benefits of other businesses in the community.”
AC: “We expect that the vouchers will be out in November.”
PG: “At The Garrison you mentioned that you weren’t worried about relegation. Well are you any more worried about it now?”
KEA: “Let me tell you, I am not worried unless someone tells me mathematically that we are going to be relegated. I still see everything that’s happening, behind-closed-doors, I believe in what we are doing.”
PG: “Can you tell us about the catering and now that it’s run in-house, what steps are being taken to improve that particular service, whether that’s levels of stock or people waiting 40 minutes to get served.”
KEA: “I tasked Andrew here, with that, to go during a game to try and feel that out. To kind of make an assessment of what we need to do to improve it.
“And so we are looking into it, whether that’s the contactless that works, pre-poured drinks, cutting down the queues, it’s going to be an ongoing thing and again, we’ll get there.
“And on that, I’m thinking of introducing some alcohol free beer, and there are some here for you to try, so make sure you take some on your way out and let me know what you think.”
AC: “Thank you for coming tonight, thank you for your time and thank you for your continued patience and support.”