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Thursday 26 April 2012
In safe hands: Phil Clark on a decade of AFC Wimbledon

In the third of a series of features celebrating a decade of AFC Wimbledon and what has changed in that time, the club’s head of security and safety officer, Phil Clark, tells us why his match-day preparations are now so different.

Clark’s role has changed massively since 2002 as he now does two full days a week at AFC Wimbledon to cope with the demands of the job. On a Tuesday, Friday and match-days he is instrumental in the meticulous planning of Wimbledon’s security operation that involves liaising with police, the opposition club and his team of stewards, of which there were 43 for the recent Torquay match. No stone is left unturned in the pursuit of safety both outside the ground and inside, where AFC Wimbledon’s state-of-the-art control room monitors every aspect of crowd control.

It is all a far cry from AFC Wimbledon’s very first Combined Counties League home match against Chipstead in 2002 when Clark recalled the approach was completely different. “I was standing on the corner of the ground and the Metropolitan Police Chief Inspector on that day told me that we were sold out,” he said. “We had about 50 fans though that still wanted to get in and I said to him that my answer would be different to his. We let them in as it was the club’s first ever competitive game, but we were basically full to capacity.

“We would not be able to do that now. We have still got terraces this season and they’ve all been assessed so that the club knows how many people should be in every part of the ground. We have to be very careful now. There has scarcely been a game this season when we have not had someone from the FA or the local council in the control room monitoring our activities. We now have 11 CCTV cameras at the club, five outside and six inside. When we first started we just had a little room with a dozen or so radios that stewards would use to keep in touch with each other on a match day.”

The security preparations required for our opening Football League match against Bristol Rovers last August with over 500 visiting fans summed up just how much everything had changed. And Clark admits that it was a big challenge. “We needed to get certain things in place as a club before 1 July as regards security to satisfy the Football League and then we were up and running on 6 August with the Sky Sports cameras here,” he added. “There were a few obstacles for us on the day, to say the least, and it is fair to say that it was a baptism of fire. We had the control room, which we had never had before with our state-of-the-art CCTV, and a turnstile monitoring system in place, but both systems went down just as we opened.

"It was probably the worst experience for me as a safety officer. Then we had two Bristol fans on the pitch after they scored and when my guys tried to get them, Bristol scored again and they ran towards their bench. They were not doing any harm, but as a football club you get a big slap on the wrist for that from the FA. It was a totally different clientele during the days when we had the likes of Chipstead. You were required by the Combined Counties League to have a steward at each corner of the ground and we would have around 12, who were all mostly volunteers. It was totally different. We would have about 3,000 fans and there would only be about 20 fans from the opposition, who would come to watch the game, have a couple of beers and watch their team lose about 5-0 in those days. I am not saying it was that easy, but it was certainly easier to organise.”

Luke McKenzie worked with Clark when AFC Wimbledon started in 2002 and he was the club’s Chief Steward until three years ago. McKenzie saw the approach change completely from the days when we provided match-day stewards at away games due to the size of our fan base in the Combined Counties League.

That particular service was curtailed in 2004 after a game against Coney Hall, staged at Bromley, which resulted in the match being abandoned due to crowd trouble. "We had to take our own volunteer stewards to away games, but Coney Hall was an absolute nightmare and one of the worst nights of my life," he said. "It was pretty much the end of us providing stewards as we did not want to put our own volunteers in danger.

"When the club first started in 2002 it was so different from what we were used to with the old Wimbledon. We would go to away grounds and you could walk right the way around and have a beer too while you watched the game. For home matches, we had a dozen stewards and a little room with no roof on it. If it rained heavily then the jackets would be soaked. Everything changed when we got to the Blue Square South as clubs would bring a few hundred fans. This meant we needed to get outside companies to provide stewards and that all came with pitfalls. The aspect of the club when we had stewards who were basically fans watching the game had to go and the higher we got, the more professional it became with more requirements to fulfil.”

That is certainly the case now for Clark, who is at the heart of AFC Wimbledon’s planning for every home game. “In terms of getting the safety certificate for the Football League, all the stewards we use have to be NVQ level two trained,” he added. “Last summer, we managed to obtain funding to train the volunteer stewards that we have here. We have a dozen in-house stewards and the rest we get from outside, the numbers depending on our assessment of the risk for the particular match. We have to liaise with the local police and the police where the opposition are from to decide how many security personnel to have inside and outside the ground. We will often not let opposition fans into the bars as you are leaving yourselves wide open to problems.

“We had 43 stewards at the Torquay game and you have to assess everything on a match by match basis. On a Friday I will prepare for a game with a lot of paperwork. I do ground checks when I am here, I will speak to the police to make sure that all the intelligence from them and the opposition club has been channelled to me.

"On a Saturday, I will be here at 9.30am to brief staff and then talk to stewards from outside companies, who will be taken to their sections. We also do a brief with the referee and I meet the duty inspector. It is all systems go and completely different from 10 years ago when you would just turn up at 1.30pm on a match-day. To our fan base it can sometimes look like we are throwing our weight around, but we just want people to be safe. With some clubs you can get thugs who do not care who they upset. The last thing we want is a brawl. We are a Football League club. We cannot afford for the FA to fine us and for the council to reduce our capacity, which they can do.”

Thankfully, Clark and his team have avoided such a scenario and with his dedication to the cause over the past 10 years, it is easy to see why match-days at Wimbledon are in safe hands.