The EFL have this week received a combination of criticism and support for ensuring that last Saturday’s game between Leyton Orient and Colchester United was completed following a prolonged pitch incursion.
This mixed response alone, highlights the difficult decision that needed to be made.
Before we seek to further explain the rationale behind the decision taken on Saturday we would like to reiterate that the EFL recognises that supporters of Clubs have the right to protest if they are unhappy and very much understand the frustration of Leyton Orient fans in particular at this difficult time. As we have stated, unless our rules are broken, our powers to intervene are limited once owners (‘Responsible Persons‘) are in position.
Our Rules reflect our position as a competition organiser and are derived to protect our competitions, the format of which thrives on promotion and relegation. It is therefore imperative that all clubs play 46 games of 90 minutes to complete a full season and any variation from this brings the legitimacy of the competition into question.
While acknowledging the right of fans to protest, we cannot support this if those actions ‘cross the white line’ and affect the sporting outcome. The pitch invasion at the Matchroom Stadium was peaceful in its nature but led to the referee needing to take the players off the field. We cannot sit back and allow this to happen and have the credibility of our competition, which is envied the world over, questioned.
The result of the game matters in all circumstances, particularly if it affects promotion, play-off qualification or relegation issues.
After the abandonment of the Championship fixture between Blackpool and Huddersfield Town on 2 May 2015, new rules were put in place to ensure that squads and stadiums remained available for a period of four days after the end of the season. This was implemented to ensure that we could always finish a season and in doing so, sent a clear message that the outcomes of matches cannot be affected by supporters causing a game to be abandoned. We had hoped that this would help prevent the scenes we witnessed last Saturday.
The Leyton Orient v Colchester United game was therefore always going to be completed and as those that were present at the game are aware, strenuous attempts were made to clear the pitch after the incursion to allow this to happen. These attempts, including appeals from Leyton Orient, failed.
It was only when these efforts were exhausted that the decision was taken by the EFL to announce the abandonment of the game to clear the pitch and when it was safe, allow the players to return to complete the fixture. As everyone is aware, this worked in that the game was completed. The EFL were disappointed that the closing stages of the match were not competitive but understand why, after such a lengthy delay.
This approach was a last resort and the decision to remove the need to make arrangements for the game to be replayed in the last week of the season, is not one we would choose to make again.
There is no regret with regard to the difficult decision that was made, only disappointment that it had to be taken, as it was always going to lead to unhappiness in some quarters.
The peaceful but disruptive protests of Leyton Orient fans on Saturday 29 April gave rise to significant concerns that similar events could occur at Bloomfield Road for the last game of the season. Based on this experience, we agreed that ticket sales could be temporarily suspended until a full review of the security arrangements took place. Once this review had taken place and a satisfactory conclusion arrived at, tickets went back on sale with a number of proportionate measures to reduce the likelihood of the 90 minutes being disrupted.
Elsewhere last weekend, we saw Huddersfield Town make wholesale changes to their team that played Birmingham City. It is very much a subjective matter to determine what constitutes a ‘full strength’ side, however the disappointment of both Blackburn Rovers and Nottingham Forest is understandable.
Huddersfield have been asked for their observations and reasons for taking the approach that they did. This type of approach is another challenge to the integrity of the competition, albeit a different one to the actions of supporters. We have reminded all Clubs this week as to their obligations in this area.
It has been a difficult week for the EFL and we hope that the final weekend of matches in the Championship and League Two pass without further incident that could damage the reputation of our Clubs, their fans or our competition.
It is likely that we will break the 18 million fans through turnstiles barrier this weekend for the first time since 1960, which is a tribute to both our Clubs and their fans in equal measure. It is also why we have a responsibility to ensure that all matches are completed in a fair and equitable manner that reflects the longheld sporting principles of the EFL.