EXCLUSIVE: Sweet rejects claims Luton released a ‘factually incorrect statement’

Hatters CEO Gary Sweet
Hatters CEO Gary Sweet

Hatters chief executive Gary Sweet has hit back at claims that the club has released a ‘factually incorrect statement’ surrounding the allegations of racist abuse at Kenilworth Road last week.

After Luton’s 4-1 win over Accrington Stanley on Tuesday night, a BBC Radio Lancashire commentator claimed he heard alleged racist remarks towards visiting striker Offrande Zanzala, while assistant BBC Sport producer Karen Fazackerley, who was in the away end, alleged on Twitter that defender Michael Ihiekwe was the victim of monkey chants from Luton supporters.

We are more than happy to conclude, for our own purposes and for the purposes of the FA, that absolutely no evidence of racial abuse of any kind has been found.

Gary Sweet

That was then retweeted by TV presenter Jacqui Oatley to almost 150,000 followers, as she went on to claim the Hatters had ‘massively jumped the gun’ by releasing a statement on Friday afternoon confirming no evidence had been found of either allegations.

When asked by the News/Gazette to clarify her comments, Oatley, who wasn’t actually at the game, said that the second incident surrounding Fazackerley had ‘definitely been reported to the club,’ while there were ‘three away fans who made monkey chant claims,’ plus stating Luton had been ‘irresponsible’ in claiming their innocence.

However, speaking exclusively to the News/Gazette, Sweet was eager to set the record straight.

Regarding the second incident, he said: “The club received no complaint or report on this incident on the night, either directly, via stewards or the police.

“We understand she may have alerted the police during the game, but whilst the police have a duty to report material incidents to the club, I can confirm that this wasn’t.

“None of our stewards received a complaint. We decided to investigate upon being alerted to Ms Fazackerley’s tweets.”

On the three away fans hearing the chants, Sweet continued: “We only know of the one allegations made by Ms Fazackerley which we subsequently reported.

“We can categorically confirm that no other reports have been received by the club from anyone regarding the chants either directly or indirectly.”

When asked about the speed of Town’s investigation, he said: “We have carried out a very thorough, independent investigation which we not only needed to do for the FA but also for our own peace of mind.

“We have done so by interviewing stewards, asking the police for any feedback they are able to provide, asking supporters in the area – many of whom would be known and trusted individuals who we know would be truthful whatever the outcome – and, most pertinently, looking at and listening to lots of media files from coverage and CCTV.

“We are more than happy to conclude, for our own purposes and for the purposes of the FA, that absolutely no evidence of racial abuse of any kind has been found.

“Indeed, we have received more than a few reports from stewards and reliable supporters that go against the accusations made.”

With no complaints made by any Town fans in the area, Oatley also went on to query whether football fans would ‘dob in their own’.

Sweet quite rightly took umbrage with this remark too, saying: “We know for a fact, having been the recipient of historical reports, that Luton supporters undeniably understand how important the preservation of our image and our behaviour is.

“When the club was subject to external fascist groups earlier this season we had numerous reports from Hatters fans reporting apparent fellow fans.

“Much of our reliance on preserving our good name is based upon supporters self-policing, which works very well indeed and is something we are very proud of our fanbase for upholding.”

After being interviewed twice on Talksport about the allegations, Sweet admitted Oatley’s tweets could be harmful for the club, saying: “It’s very damaging. We have worked tirelessly over the last 10 years to ensure that Kenilworth Road is a sanctuary for all-comers from any race or culture to visit without concern of prejudice being raised.

“Our public image is everything to us. If we’re seen as a racist club, not only would this peg back our progress in this area but it would potentially stop supporters from minority groups from attending football matches.

“Therefore, I would argue that making accusations in the printed press or on social media as if they were true are incredibly unhelpful to the Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.

“For the record, people young and old, male or female from those communities can have the absolute faith that they are able to attend any football match at Kenilworth Road without concern.

“As supporters, we pride ourselves on Luton Town being the most culturally diverse football club in professional football.”

When asked whether he felt the case was now closed as far as the Hatters were concerned, Sweet said: “Naturally, we need to respect the outcome of the police investigation. However, it was really important that we acted more swiftly to quickly come out to ease people’s concerns on this matter.

“We have no desire to see such accusations drag on without proof.

“We are now very happy that there is no proof to any of the accusations made, making them false.”

Finally, Sweet did confirm the club could take action themselves once the police investigation has finished, while they continue to seek an apology from the Sun for their reporting of the story too.

He added: “We are reserving the right to seek further police action against those individuals who have libelled the club, made defamatory comments or false allegations without corroboration in either the printed press or on social media, pending the police investigation of course.

“We have asked The Sun for an apology which they have refused to acknowledge. We will continue to pursue that request.

“As they reported them as fact, they are clearly convinced that these events happened and any media outlet with an operational moral compass will be boycotting Luton Town for future games.”