When I arrived at the Albion Hotel for the Wanderers fan forum on Thursday 17th October, 2013 I ran into Judith O’Brien who I met 18 months ago at the very first fan meeting at the Woolpack Hotel before the club had a name, colours and before the RBB were the RBB. Judith, affectionately known as “Redhead” by many, handed me a statement and questions that she had emailed to the club and was planning on reading out during the forum.
I read through the page and a half of notes and discovered that it was all about the huge police presence at Gosford during Round 1. I told her straight away that a statement such as this, coming from someone like her, would have a greater impact than a bunch of twenty-somethings saying the same thing. Red also informed me that she had sent her statement and questions to her local member Nathan Rees who is also the Shadow Police Minister.
When Judith first heard of the fan meeting, her main questioning was going to be about part ownership of the club for the fans, but after what she experienced in Gosford her priorities changed, “because after living for 69 years with absolutely no police record, after never having lost my license, never ever even having had a parking ticket, I get filmed by the police.”
Red and her husband opted to not attend the final 2013 performance in the Mozart in the City series at the Sydney Recital Hall in Angel Place so they could attend this fan forum to attempt to get some answers as they felt that strongly about it. The club, the FFA, the A-League and the public simply cannot ignore a heartfelt statement from a retired school principal who volunteers her time for the Wanderers and is as passionate, if not more passionate, than many others that attend Wanderland.
Judith was the first fan to be given the microphone and immediately she had the attention of the room.
From a senior citizens point of view, she believes that the only way we can have a better active support is if we educate the police force on what active support actually is and she sees “no need for the riot squad to ever be at one of our games.”
This was coming from someone that doesn’t even sit in active support but supports everything the RBB does and what they bring to the match day experience for all those that attend.
Judith expressed her concerns of when she exited the Settler’s Arms Tavern pre game to participate on the march she was greeted by a multitude of riot squad police in their dark blue overall uniforms, bullet proof vests and guns clearly visible.
She thought to herself “Where the hell am I? This is not me. I find that totally offensive.”
All those that attended the Round 1 match at Gosford saw the handful of police filming the Wanderers fans with handycams and some jokingly waved at the cameras to highlight that it was a complete overreaction. But there are some serious questions to be raised, and what concerns many people and especially Red is “what is going to happen to this footage, where will it be kept, how long will it be kept, and how will it be used? This really really bothers me, a lot, because that is not who I am. I am not the sort of person who breaks the law and is filmed by police.”
When she got to the stadium, Judith looked around and noticed that every single riot squad police member, security and general police were stationed in front of where she was sitting, the 4 or so bays of Wanderers fans. She looked across the other side of the stadium where the Yellow Army was located and couldn’t see a single cop in sight.
It is unknown to the general public who is making these decisions for the high police presence, but Judith wants to know “why are they perpetuating this myth that if you live west of Balmain you must somehow be a less than normal person. You live off Centrelink, you’re ignorant, you’re uneducated, or whatever. I find that personally very very offensive.”
When leaving the stadium, Judith half heartedly joked that she “loved the idea of a guard of honour”, but did not like the idea of having to walk “between these people so heavily armed with their hands on their guns. Not to mention the horses. I’m sorry, but this is not what Western Sydney is about. This is not what me, as a football fan, is about.”
She wants to know who is making these ignorant decisions of having over the top amounts of police and riot squad present at games. This echoes Ivan’s comments in his article to what was witnessed at the pre-season game against Adelaide at Centrebet Stadium.
Judith constantly referred to the Red and Black Bloc as “my RBB”, as all members of the Wanderers have a sense of ownership and pride with each other as football fans and members of this club. Judith described the RBB as having family groups: “it (the RBB) has family groups with children. It has a lot of women. It’s not just your usual group of late teenage to the mid 25 age group of blokes. Our RBB is made up of a microcosm of the whole of Western Sydney. There is no line that says ‘this is active support and this is membership’. And I think this was proven last year when we had that 20 minute silent protest. And the whole stadium barely lasted 19 minutes before they started chanting for the RBB. So its not active support, big black line, then everybody else. Its a complete continuum…I don’t want what we’re doing, spoiled by this massive security presence.”
Judith questioned the perception that could be garnered by potential buyers if they saw their fan base being constantly surrounded by police. How will that affect the sale of the club? What will potential buyers think when they come to Wanderland and see the fans surrounded by the riot squad? Its not a good look and could actually be detrimental to the sale of the club.
Judith concluded her statement with “I have never been more offended by the law enforcement in this country as I was in Gosford last week. And I feel personally very very upset about it, and I would really like something done about it please.”
During, and at the end of her statement, Judith received a loud applause from those in attendance. This is what the police presence is doing to our fans. This is not an active support or perceived “hooligan” problem. This is a football fan problem. If a regular fan that sits in Bay 7 on the Western Stand begins to feel intimidated and upset with what they are seeing at game days, how is this right?
It is not right. It’s as simple as that. The media, the FFA et al cannot use this whole rhetoric of “a small minority that display anti-social behaviour” as a justification for alienating and insulting the entire football family by treating them like perceived criminals. It is not consistent with other sports in the country and the FFA should be defending their fans and their “product” publicly.
Damien De Bohun didn’t immediately respond to Judith’s statement and the questions it raised. Instead he told a little story about how the birth of the Western Sydney Wanderers and it’s fan base has changed the landscape of sport in this country and even society itself.
He also said that they (the FFA and the A-League administration) are not simply sitting idly by and that he personally meets with the assistant Commissioner of police in both Victoria and NSW weekly. He says that they are working with the stadiums and the authorities to work through the issue. It was stated that the intention of the police is to bring back (ie down) the numbers of police and bring it back clearly. The perception from the police in Sydney and in Melbourne is that they have needed to become involved.
De Bohun simplified it as one single thing that separates football from other sports, and that is flares. Somehow this justifies the police presence at our games. De Bohun then turned to talk about the perception in the media and how it is slowly turning towards football. He went on to say that the quickest way to change the perception is the removal of flares from the game completely.
But overall, De Bohun didn’t really answer the questions and concerns that Judith raised. We got to hear typical political roundabout answers that had a lot of words, but didn’t really say anything of substance. This continued throughout the night with other questions raised regarding unjust bans, the use of an anti-terrorism company Hatamoto infiltrating the terraces and following people pre and post game. All those in attendance merely heard the company line that had obviously been rehearsed.
It was beyond frustrating for all involved. Judith is still annoyed that De Bohun didn’t even answer her question regarding the use of the footage the police were taking.
But as Bozza said on the night. With success breeds jealousy. Football in this country, and the Wanderers, are becoming so successful so quickly that others are starting to seriously take notice. There are organisations that are starting to fear the threat that football will provide in the crowded sporting market of Australia.
I implore you all, never give up the fight. Don’t let these tactics that are being used to damper our passion for the game succeed. As far as they push, we will stand strong and firm against it all. Football is a game for the people. The people are fed up. But they will not back down.
Because the day we back down, is the day that football loses and the others win.
See you at Wanderland.
Judith’s entire statement: