A-League director Townsend wants 'change,' fair treatment for football fans

Danny Townsend, newly appointed managing director of A-League and W-League, wants fairer treatment for football fans amid perceived differences for crowds at rugby matches.

Townsend's call for action comes after football fans vented their frustrations online after a large cohort of supporters gathered for Melbourne Storm's win over the South Sydney Rabbitohs at AAMI Park in the NRL on Thursday night.

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Storm fans were seated directly behind the uprights and wielding flags and drums in the same area where Melbourne Victory supporters have been prevented from occupying.

A-League fans have not been able to congregate in that section of the ground and they also noted the contrasting number of security personnel that were present in the area when compared to football matches.

Following the frustration from supporters online, Townsend tweeted that it was "time to change it."

Already in 2021, perceived differences in treatment and rules surrounding A-League matches and other sporting events such as the Australian Open tennis and NBL have rankled Melbourne's football fans since crowds.

But while the Australian Open and NBL take place at different venues, Thursday night's clash between the Storm and Rabbitohs provided a first, direct comparison between two different codes at the same venue -- with football fans, personalities and players up in arms over the adjudged distinctions in treatment.

Melbourne-based clubs remain in ongoing talks with Victorian authorities over the rules that govern the staging of A-League matches at AAMI Park, which APL Commissioner Greg O'Rourke acknowledged on Friday.

"We've got the most passionate fans who create the best atmosphere and that's what makes football in Australia so special," O'Rourke said in a statement. "The Westfield W-League Finals Series are weeks away, with the A-League Finals Series soon after, and we want fans to be able to enjoy those games with all the noise and colour they bring.

"We will continue to work closely with Clubs, Venues and Police to make that happen as a priority, and we welcome today's decision which will allow Melbourne City to provide selected fan groups with drums and flags at AAMI Park this evening."

Just hours before Storm's win, Victory CEO Trent Jacobs -- whose fanbase has been particularly vocal about the treatment of supporters during the 2020-21 A-League season -- released a statement saying the club remained in ongoing discussions surrounding the return of active support.

"Our active supporters are such an integral and important part of our club - they are part of Melbourne Victory's identity," Jacobs said.

"It was never our choice to not have active support at our home games, following round one. We are doing everything we can to get them back in the terraces and we hope our ongoing discussions with the key stakeholders will see a resolution as soon as possible."

In a statement provided to The World Game's Lucy Zelić, Victoria Police's media unit deferred to the Victorian Department of Health on matters of active support.

When contacted for comment on the issue, the office of The Hon. Martin Pakula, Victorian State Government Minister for Tourism, Sport and Major Events, referred ESPN to a statement on the website of the Melbourne and Olympic Park Trust (MOTP), who are responsible for the operation of AAMI Park.

"Melbourne & Olympic Parks works in partnership with the Victorian Government Department of Health, Victoria Police and its tenant clubs to deliver COVIDSafe public events that balance safety and wellbeing of our guests, staff and athletes, while providing an enjoyable event experience," the MOTP statement read.

"To achieve a COVIDSafe event environment, standing active support has not been possible at AAMI Park to date.

"Discussions are ongoing between all parties to review the opportunities for re-introducing active support to the matchday experience, taking into account the evolving public health landscape and COVIDSafe requirements.

"Standing active support is not a feature of the Rugby League game experience, however, all other current COVIDSafe venue requirements remain the same for all codes.

"AAMI Park's COVIDSafe operating plan is being regularly reviewed, and we will continue to work with our partners with a common goal to achieve COVIDSafe active support."

The next scheduled A-League match at AAMI Park is Melbourne City against Macarthur FC on Friday night Australian time, in which fans will be allowed to bring flags and drums in a limited capacity. Tarpaulins blocking off the areas behind the goals, however, remain.

Western United is then set to meet Brisbane Roar on Sunday, while on Saturday, Melbourne Victory is scheduled to welcome Adelaide United to Marvel Stadium.

In other codes, Super Rugby AU side Melbourne Rebels will face the New South Wales Waratahs at AAMI Park on March 19 and Melbourne Storm will return on April 2 when they host the Brisbane Broncos.

Across the road, the AFLM season is due to commence next Thursday when Richmond and Carlton clash at the MCG. Though capped to 50,000, that fixture is expected to be the most attended sporting event in Victoria since the pandemic first hit in early 2020.

Crowd capacity for sporting events in Melbourne currently sits at 50%.