Peaceful Newcastle fans got raw deal from police in Bruges… now it's time to speak up
16:10 GMT, 21 November 2012
When Newcastle United were handed a Europa League tie in Bruges, thousands of supporters dipped into their piggy banks and booked their trip.
Never mind that hundreds weren’t guaranteed a ticket. Trains, planes, automobiles and ferries took the traveling Toon Army to the picturesque Belgian city two weeks ago and they set out to enjoy themselves.
This despite the unfounded fears of the city, the local police and FC Bruges that Newcastle would cause trouble.
Good trip: Newcastle and their fans did their club proud in Bruges as the team came away with a draw and the fans behaved
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From the moment arrangements were made for the game – when Bruges refused to hand out enough tickets to cover the expected visitors – hurdles were put in the way.
The draconian `welcome’ for Newcastle fans included arrest for any fans who tried to enter a two-mile exclusion zone without a ticket. Thankfully, after the intervention of Newcastle United, Northumbria Police and North East Conservative MEP Martin Callahan, these plans were dropped.
On the surface, the welcome looked perfect.
A big-screen was put up in the Markt main square, the bars were open, plastic glasses handed out, and those who emptied the shelves and fridges of the nearby corner shops, who have never had a week like it, were encouraged, not frowned upon.
Some of them had a pretty good drink it has to be said, and some Belgian beers hold no prisoners. But Belgian police cells didn’t. Fans sang their songs, a lot, usually with anti-Sunderland connotations, and marked their return to Europe in good spirits.
The police presence was relatively low profile in the square, although that, and the mood among them changed when kick-off approached. Two or three hours before the game started at the Jan Breydel Stadium, those with tickets were encouraged to get on the Number 5 or 15 to the stadium. So we all headed off crammed into buses with the locals in rush hour.
The half hour journey took at least an hour, but two miles from the stadium anyone wearing colours, or identified as English, were forced off the buses by police to be escorted to the ground.
Myself and colleagues survived thanks to press accreditation and our laptops, but others, no matter what their age, were herded off into the dark. And it was a long dark walk through housing estates, often within close proximity to home fans.
Back in the game: Shola Ameobi scored Newcastle's equaliser just before half time
To add insult to injury of course, there were vast gaps in the away end, as those back in the square and in Newcastle no doubt noticed. And the stewards we encountered also seemed hell-bent on ensuring we got plenty of exercise around the stadium. And with zero taxis or public transport available after the game, more than 2,000 of us had to walk back.
I know one Newcastle fan in Bruges who is no spring chicken. He was left so exhausted by the experience of walking to and from the ground that he nearly missed the game against West Ham on the Sunday. Of course he wished he had, but that’s how bad it was.
There was one altercation in Brussels, but there were no reports of any trouble in Bruges, although we witnessed one or two individuals testing the patience of their hosts after the game. Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew led the tributes to those who travelled to Belgium, relieved that his pre-match and post-match warnings for good, ambassadorial behaviour had not been ignored.
Praise: Alan Pardew was pleased with the Newcastle supporters in Bruges
Yet it all came in the face of provocation, Callahan has now discovered. And he is determined that the voices of Newcastle United fans will be heard in Europe now.
Because he knows full well if there had been just a single flare-up in Bruges involving Newcastle United supporters, it would have been seized upon by the police, authorities and many of his MEP colleagues in Brussels.
He is taking statements from fans who were in Belgium and they should take him up on it.
He said: ‘I am extremely concerned at the reports I have received from Newcastle fans who were simply in Brugge to support their team peacefully.
‘Their accounts of the treatment they received are truly shocking and I have already been in touch with the Belgian police about this.
‘I would be appalled if fans from other countries visiting the North East were subjected to this sort of aggressive and over the top policing and I would be the first to condemn it.
‘The Brugge police commissioner gave me an assurance that Newcastle supporters would be welcomed and he asked me to report any fans’ complaints to him.’
Fans can contact Martin Callanan with their experiences and feedback on policing at the Club Brugge match via www.martincallanan.com
Ben Arfa can help kick start Toon's season
Amid the concerns over Newcastle United’s stop-start season, one man has emerged like the bright star he is.
Hatem Ben Arfa lit up the defeat to Swansea City every time he got the ball. Not that something happened every time he got it. It just looked like it might when he ghosted past one, two, three, four
He doesn’t always pick the right final ball. Sometimes he doesn’t pick it all.
But you sense, rather like Newcastle, it will all start to come together very soon.
Flashes of brilliance: Hatem Ben Arfa can spark Newcastle's season into life
With Yohan Cabaye gone for the difficult December programme, the onus is on Ben Arfa to deliver, particularly for the joint enigma that is Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse’s partnerhsip.
Cisse of course was absent – and like Callahan, Newcastle intend to pursue their grievances with the FA and FIFA.
But he did provide a couple of chances for Ba to score against Swansea. It’s just he could have delivered a few more.
To Alan Pardew’s frustration, Newcastle are missing valuable time on the training ground. And that won’t change in the next month.
He just has to hope it comes together in matches and that Ben Arfa’s feet still find the gaps very few players can, and put them to better use.
Sessegnon and Johnson show what they can do, now they have to find consistency
Sunderland’s Stephane Sessegnon has taken a little longer to warm to the challenge this season but Martin O’Neill has done his best to persevere.
The Benin maestro is too talented to allow games to by-pass him forever but his loss of form and touch, so soon after signing a new, improved deal, has been perplexing.
Done it once, now do it again: Stephane Sessegnon was back to his best against Fulham
His performance at Fulham on Sunday, and his brilliant goal, have set the benchmark for the season, and backed O’Neill’s faith. And with Adam Johnson shifting through the gears effortlessly at Craven Cottage too, the Sunderland manager will be breathing a sigh of relief.
He just needs them to strut their stuff on home turf against West Bromwich Albion on Saturday now.
Downing bid proves Boro are serious promotions contenders
And finally, Stewart Downing back at Middlesbrough to lead the promotion charge Why not
It probably won’t come off. Liverpool need money for their unwanted England winger, not loan deals, and if a Premier League club comes in with cash, or a similar offer (Sunderland), even Boro boy Downing would surely be tempted to go there instead.
Back to Boro: Middlesbrough are keen to sign Stewart Downing
But it does show Middlesbrough have ambition, and they are taking this season seriously.
Chairman Steve Gibson has had enough of the Championship now and he wants to be back in the top flight.
And if he can’t see Downing back in a Boro shirt this season, he’s indicated he wouldn’t rule it out if Middlesbrough do get back to the promised land.