Featherstone Rovers escape further punishment over alleged 'five-hour drinking session' in clubhouse
Featherstone Rovers have escaped a ban on selling alcohol at their home ground, despite police claims over a five-hour long drinking "session" which breached Covid rules.
The Wembley-bound rugby league side were accused of allowing first-team players and officials to booze in a club bar at the Millennium Stadium after a win over Batley on March 27 this year.
Rovers did not dispute the gathering had taken place, saying it was a "one off incident" and "not an organised party", but strongly denied suggestions the club had been obstructive during the investigations that followed.
A licensing hearing on Tuesday was told that figures involved in the gathering had bought stashes of Amstel, Budweiser and Bud Light from a nearby Bargain Booze store and brought it back to drink in the clubhouse.
CCTV recovered from the premises showed some players and staff coming and going across a five-hour period, though club chairman Mark Campbell was present throughout, police said.
Rugby Football League (RFL) guidelines at the time stated players had to leave grounds within 30 minutes of a match finishing.
The hearing was told that around 15 players were involved in what was described as a "session" without social distancing across a five-hour period, although the club claimed that "on average", no more than 10 people were together in the room at any one time.
Police also said the club denied there was any operational CCTV covering the bar area when they first investigated, before a working system was later found in a loft area by officers following a tip-off.
Mr Campbell and the club's chief executive, Martin Vickers, insisted they'd been unaware that working cameras covered that area, saying employees who'd since left the club had been responsible for overseeing their installation.
Police barrister Oliver Thorne told the hearing that Mr Campbell had "attempted to shield the players" from the consequences of having been involved in the gathering.
"You can understand why he'd not want to see the club suffer," Mr Thorne said.
"But it's obvious this shouldn't have happened."
One player who has been punished for the incident is Brett Ferres, who was handed a 10-day ban by the RFL in April, after being identified in a photo of the gathering which was posted on social media.
He was also fined £350, £100 of which was suspended, it was said.
But Mr Thorne said the club had made "clear attempts to disguise" the identity of other players who'd been at the gathering.
During the Rugby Football League's (RFL) initial investigation, the club offered a "misleadingly short" list of nine people who were involved, which included three men who were described by Rovers as "ballboys", the hearing was told.
Mr Thorne said: "It's really unfortunate that a club that means so much to the community has let this happen. But they clearly did. Mr Campbell was present throughout.
"Comprehensively this was a breach, not just of the law, but of the black-and-white and easy-to-follow RFL (Covid) guidelines about what should happen after a match.
"And the responses to it afterwards give cause for a concern.
"Players shouldn't have been drinking in that bar at all, never mind for hours and hours."
Police asked a panel of three councillors to temporarily suspend the club's alcohol licence while Rovers put in place a number of new measures.
They also asked for both Mr Vickers and Mr Campbell to be barred from overseeing the sale of alcohol at the ground, with the responsibility to be given to either another member of club staff, or outsourced to a separate company.
The club said losing its right to sell alcohol would potentially put them in "serious financial jeopardy".
Food and drink sales generate around £250,000 a year for Rovers, making it the club's largest stream of income.
Mr Campbell told the hearing: "I've run this club for 15 years. In that time I've made it sustainable.
"I know how to run a good business and I know how to look after customers.
I find it irritating to hear comments questioning whether I'm the right person to run a business."
Mr Campbell said that on the day in question, he'd got to the ground at half-time and headed into the clubhouse to watch Leeds Rhinos play Wakefield Trinity on TV with a case of beer he'd had in his office.
He denied suggestions he'd obfuscated over who was there, saying he was only aware of "who was in his group", and not who was at other nearby tables.
He told the hearing that the clubhouse was used for "welfare" purposes for the players and that the team regularly ate and drank in there after games.
Chief executive Mr Vickers said he was angry at the claims he had not co-operated with enquiries, saying they were "not true".
"We are a professional and well-run club," he told the committee.
"We've shown over a period of many years that in terms of licensing matters we have a completely unblemished record.
"The club has acknowledged there were issues here that needed to be improved.
"This was a one-off incident and I hope the panel understands that."
The committee of three councillors ruled that the club must adhere to a number of "standard" conditions and said that Mr Vickers would become the designated official in charge of overseeing the sale of alcohol.
No other sanctions were imposed.
Speaking after the hearing, Mr Campbell and Mr Vickers said the committee's decision was a vindication of their stance that they'd not obstructed the enquiries.
Local Democracy Reporting Service