John Handley profile: Safety the name of the game for Villa's gentle giant
John Handley isn't really a football fan. He prefers rugby, if truth be told. But even he knows the amazing honour that's afforded him every morning when driving into work at Villa Park.
The 60-year-old head of safety and security is more than aware of the club's status in the game.
"There is something about this club," said amiable Handley. "You are working at an organisation which holds the attention of a lot of people. And a lot of people would love your job. That goes for a lot of people in a lot of departments.
"Villa has iconic status in football. It's one of the iconic stadiums in Great Britain and Europe. It has also set standards of conduct and behaviour which other clubs can envy.
"If you arrive here as a non-supporter, as I did, you still grow to love the club.
"I realised very quickly too that if Villa don't do the right thing, it's never for the lack of trying. The club always has class about it.
"There's a difference between having class and being flash. We have class. That appeals to me hugely.
"I'm not a big football fan. I'm a rugby man. But even I can appreciate the drama of the game and the glory of this great football club."
Handley arrived at B6 after an enjoyable 30-plus year career with the police force, which took in stints at Digbeth, Chelmsley Wood, Solihull and Coventry.
He dealt with all manner of crimes, from burglary to murder, and made his way up to the rank of inspector before retiring in 2004.
He was a chameleon during his time in uniform, always trying his hand with new roles and new projects.
For example, he worked in CID but was also tasked with administration support work, marking up prosecution papers.
When he saw the claret and blue role come up months before saying farewell to the boys in blue, he didn't think he had the right qualifications to be considered.
But on the advice of a fellow officer, he sent off his CV and, two interviews later, he was appointed.
He believes his background in the police force has equipped him with some valuable tools that serve him well in his role here.
"I served with the police from 1971 to 2004. When I started it was very much different to what it is now. But don't talk about Life from Mars - it was nothing like that!
"When I retired I had done the thick end of 33 years. I was at inspector at Queen's Road in Aston when I left and had policed over 50 games at Villa Park.
"I heard the job was coming up here. I didn't think I had a high enough rank for it. I thought Villa would want a superintendent.
"But one of my bosses spoke to me and told me not to be stupid - which, to be fair, he had said to me several times previously!
"I applied and I was absolutely thrilled to get the position. I couldn't have been happier. I didn't see it happening.
"I'm not a football man as I have said but I was thrilled and I have not ceased to be thrilled since.
"I like to think I'm someone who people can rely on under pressure. I have had to deal with some unpleasant situations in the police force.
"There were always moments when things tested you and made you gulp. You tend to gulp earlier in your career but there are still things that make you gulp regardless of your age and experience in the role. I've certainly met some sinister people.
"I think that life experience helps me, certainly on a matchday. I rarely get flustered and I do not think that I could justifiably be accused of over-reacting to a situation!
John's main role, of course, is safety and security in and around Villa Park on a matchday.
He's in charge of the stadium bowl - inside the ground itself - as well as the roads within the club's "footprint" and the car parks.
He is, naturally, a busy man in the week but the role really hots up in the run-up to a game.
In the days directly proceeding matchday, he will contact his opposite number to check how the away fans have been behaving on the road, discuss matters with the police and ready himself for his briefing with senior stewards to make sure everyone is aware of their responsibilities.
During the game itself, he's in the "control room" - situated between the Doug Ellis and Trinity Road stands - where his array of communication devices help him keep in contact with anything up to 300 stewards and 100 police officers.
He gets fed safety information throughout the 90 minutes and beyond and has to decide in a split-second what needs doing.
It's a job he revels in and he's proud of Villa's reputation as standard-bearers in the game.
"Essentially the role is safety officer - the clue is in the title!
"It was set up after Hillsborough. It was decided there needed to be someone with some experience and status that's responsible for safety and persons attending the stadium.
"Since being appointed I have attended numerous courses and have formal qualifications in crowd safety.
"You may start with relevant experience gained from your previous life but you are a fool if you do not think that you can continue to learn and develop.
"In all honesty, crowd safety is much better these days and one of the reasons for this is because we don't have cash turnstiles.
"The way of monitoring fans coming in and out of the stadium is much more sophisticated now.
"We have more than enough turnstiles. And importantly we don't sell any more tickets than we have space for!
"You need to know how many a certain area of the ground will take and you don't let any more people into that area.
"In terms of disorder associated with football? It still exists, if I'm brutally honest. But now the problems caused are rarely at football stadiums.
"Trouble-makers know that football stadiums are well-policed. They know actions are recorded on camera. There are our cameras and then virtually every game is recorded by BBC and Sky too.
"They know they have an excellent chance of being identified. If it happens outside the stadium - not the roads around the ground - in the politest fashion, that's not my problem. That's what the professional police force is paid to handle.
"My concern is the behaviour of supporters inside the ground.
"To help with that, I will speak with the opposing club and find out how their club's fans have behaved in the games preceding ours. I know the answer generally because you know the reputations of opposing clubs. But it never hurts to have a chat to check particular issues.
"I check any "complicating issues" - such as, for example, a former player taking a corner near Villa fans. I tell the stewards to look at the crowd. The players are totally entitled not to be abused so we're looking out for things.
"We have stewards everywhere pretty much - by the coach when teams arrive, by the dressing room, around the pitch.
"It's checking behaviour and making sure access is controlled.
"In terms of a routine, we check things on the morning of the game - gate release mechanisms, public address system, that kind of thing.
"We brief the senior stewards two and quarter hours before kick-off. Then the turnstiles open an hour and a half before kick-off.
"Normally up until kick-off I am out and about, having a look around.
"I am being seen, talking to people, making sure everything is going well.
"I am responsible for car parks and traffic exclusion around the ground also. We close the roads on a matchday not for convenience of motorists, more for safety of pedestrians.
"During the game itself I deal with everything that comes up - shall I eject this person, we've had abuse from this person. We have reports throughout the match from stewards all around the ground.
"All in all, I am proud of the tight ship we run. Villa have always had a good reputation.
"People come to us a lot. A lot of safety officers come here to check. We are well-thought-of. We are as good as any."
Make sure you're here to roar on the lads against Manchester United.
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