Overcrowding reports at Sheffield Wednesday v Newcastle “premature”, says EFL’s head of security

There were 4,500 Newcastle fans in the Leppings Lane End for the game

Authorities have “full confidence” in Sheffield Wednesday’s safety operations after reports of overcrowding during an FA Cup tie against Newcastle, says a leading football security official.

Some Newcastle fans claimed there was a lack of stewarding before kick-off at Hillsborough and they were crammed in.

The government’s adviser on safety at sports grounds and the Football Association have begun investigations.

But Bob Eastwood said blaming dangerous overcrowding was “premature”.

Speaking in front of MPs at a committee meeting about safety at football, Eastwood, the head of security operations at the English Football League (EFL), added: “The club have done a very quick debrief of their operation and have already instigated a number of measures in order to reduce some of the issues that caused some concerns for some fans, which didn’t amount to overcrowding

“At this moment in time I think it’s a little premature to agree with media and social media reports that there was overcrowding.”

The incident occurred at the Leppings Lane end of Hillsborough, the same stand where a crush at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest resulted in the deaths of 97 supporters.

Eastwood said there was “possibly some issue connected to the way fans have moved around in the lower tier” during the third-round tie on 7 January, which League One Wednesday won 2-1.

“The safety advisory group at Sheffield City Council have got full confidence in the club’s safety operation because if they hadn’t, if there were any concerns that the safety of people was compromised, especially at Sheffield Wednesday in view of the history, then the city council would issue a prohibition notice, and they haven’t,” he added.

“The deputy chair of the safety advisory group was at that fixture and there are no concerns currently that there is any way that safety was compromised.

“But nevertheless, the fans have got legitimate complaints and it’s that that we are taking very seriously.”

EFL chief calls for pilot into drinking alcohol in stands

Eastwood covered a range of topics at the meeting, including calling for a pilot of sensible drinking of alcohol at football grounds.

Rules in place since 1985 ban drinking alcohol in view of the pitch but the UK government is considering a change which was outlined in a fan-led review of the game.

“These laws are over 40 years old and it would be fantastic if they were looked at with a view to overhauling them,” he said. “There is a period of learning to go through, which is why having a pilot would be invaluable.”

It is argued current rules mean people preload with alcohol before kick-off before rushing to games and also drink quickly at half-time.

However, the national lead on football policing said fans will be at risk of a “lager shampoo” if the ban is lifted.

Eastwood said: “I know for a fact that if there is poor behaviour the clubs will mitigate those risks by stopping the supply of alcohol at half-time.”

He added: “There is a business imperative, clubs have suffered greatly during lockdown and it is a legitimate part of the business. This is why a pilot would be so beneficial.

“We could actually manage this very carefully to then issue guidance on how the sale of alcohol can take place. My own firm belief is that it will mitigate many of the risks and many of the issues we are experiencing because we are treating fans like human beings and they should be allowed to do it.”