AN Aston Villa steward died after a series of safety blunders left him at the mercy of rampaging football thugs, the Sunday Mercury can reveal today.
David Ireland was killed during a running battle between more than 100 rival hooligans after a game between Villa and Queens Park Rangers in September.
His death came after he was ordered to leave his post inside Villa Park to help stop the violence outside - because there were no police on duty.
Last week, an undercover Sunday Mercury investigation showed how two of our top Premiership teams were skimping on safety to save cash.
We told how Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion were failing to vet, check or train their stewards properly, putting both them and fans at risk.
Today we reveal the chain of events leading up to Mr Ireland's death - and put a series of tough questions to those investigating the tragedy.
The harrowing background to the tragedy has just come to light after our undercover reporter spoke to devastated colleagues while working alongside them on the terraces.
Mr Ireland, 49, from Studley in Warwickshire, had worked as a steward in the North Stand at Villa Park for more than three years before he died.
On the night of September 22, the father-of-four turned up for work as usual for a csecond round tie against Queens Park Rangers.
On paper, it was a low-profile fixture. But behind the scenes lurked a hooligan element intent on causing trouble.
Amazingly, police intelligence seemed to have failed entirely to predict that thugs were heading to the match looking for a fight.
Officially, officers from both the Metropolitan Police and West Midlands Police should have pooled intelligence before the game.
But it remains unclear if the Met had passed on details regarding QPR's growing reputation for having a dangerous 'firm' of thug supporters.
Despite not being in the same hooligan league as Millwall or West Ham, the London side's hardcore has made its presence felt in recent years - partly thanks to the rise of a notorious youth wing.
The Sunday Mercury under-stands that it was this section of QPR's 'support' that was actively spoiling for a fight days before the Carling Cup clash.
Likewise, Villa thugs were already goading their QPR counterparts on internet websites.
Message board postings indicate how the rival firms had already linked up well in advance to pre-arrange a mass brawl.
On one QPR hooligan website, a Villa 'fan' taunted the opposition: "Will we be seeing ya on Wed? I'm sure we will welcome you lot. Up the Villa!"
Yet the Carling Cup game had been officially classed as 'policefree' by cops - meaning there were no officers inside the ground whatsoever.
The match itself was a tame affair. Villa cruised into the third round of the competition after a 3-1 victory.
But stewards working that night remember how, as the final whistle drew near, signs of trouble were already evident.
More than 100 QPR fans had made their way to the exits of the Lower North Stand, where away fans are seated, seemingly on their way home after a defeat.
In fact, they were waiting for Villa supporters to leave - setting up a pitched battle outside the stadium.
"I remember seeing the fans leaving," one senior Villa steward told our undercover reporter.
"Then we were called to go out-side. Trouble had started and there were two to three makeshift lines of us (stewards) trying to keep the two sets of fans apart.
"We tried to link arms, because we thought that would make us more difficult to get through. But it didn't have much effect at all.
"To be honest, we were really lucky it was not a lot worse. There were bottles and bricks flying everywhere.
"It's amazing that no-one else was injured. I remember going into it thinking 'I hope to God things don't get worse than this' as it all began.
"But then I heard David had died. Things had just got worse. A lot worse."
It remains one of the key unanswered questions of that tragic night as to why ANY stewards were called outside the ground at all.
Once they had left the stadium, their meagre powers had disappeared.
As we revealed last week, most new stewards begin work at Villa with barely any training whatsoever.
But even experienced staff had not been taught the kind of skills which would have equipped them to deal with a full-scale riot.
Yet somewhere in Villa's safety command chain someone took the decision to send stewards to do the police's job.
Just who made that decision remains unclear - but it turned out to be an horrific mistake.
The stewards were hopelessly out of their depth as QPR hooligans went on the rampage, ripping off metal traffic signs from lamp-posts to use as missiles.
One steward said: "I didn't see what happened to David, but the fighting was worse than the riots from the Miners' Strike in the mid-1980s. It was horrible."
At some stage during the violence, Mr Ireland was knocked to the ground and sustained terrible injuries.
He died in Birmingham's City Hospital three weeks later, although the cause of his death has yet to be established and an inquest has yet to take place.
Last month, five men were arrested and bailed by cops, but no-one has been charged in connection with the death.
Police are believed to be waiting for post-mortem examination results before probing the case any further.
But just a day after Mr Ireland's death, QPR thugs were leaving sickening website messages celebrating their 'victory' over their Villa rivals.
One taunted Villa fans: "You lot were s**t. You got absolutely mauled by our youth. At least you showed though. Fairplay to the younger lot at QPR, you went f***ing mental, scattered Villa about quite a few times."
Another posting, titled 'Let's all laugh at Villa', read: "Villa well and truly got their ass kicked.
"Rangers had over 100 boys out last night, not a copper in sight. Aston Villa confirmed today to a local reporter that there was a riot at the end of the game... Mugs."
In a reference to the feared QPR youth wing, it gloated: "Baby squad... were waiting!"
According to some stewards, the time it took the police to arrive was a critical factor in Mr Ireland's death.
One said: "I've been doing this for three years and was out there on the QPR night. It was bad but we didn't have any police there.
"It was a non-police match but they took a long time to come after they were called.
"We just tried to sort out a barrier between them. I didn't know the man who died, but there are a lot of us who feel bitter about the way the police handled it.
"They were very badly organised. We had two police turn up in just one car at first before others arrived 20 minutes later. But by then it was all over."
Another added: "I work down at Coventry, too. The trouble is that the clubs are trying to save money with these non-police games.
"I was at Coventry the other week and there was trouble outside afterwards as well. No police, we had to deal with it. Same problem again."
Mr Ireland's death has shocked fans, colleagues and players alike.
One of his fellow North Stand stewards told our undercover man: "David was a lovely bloke. He was very kind and also did some work down at Edgbaston for the cricket."
West Midlands Police declined to comment on our story.
An Aston Villa spokesman said: "There is an ongoing investigation into the events of that evening and it would be inappropriate to comment at this time."
FIVE QUESTIONS THAT MUST BE ANSWERED
1 Were Aston Villa stewards ordered out-Villa Park to deal with the fighting? side
2 Who made the crucial decision to send stewards outside the ground?
3 Were West Midlands Police aware of the growing reputation for soccer violence of QPR fans?
4 If not, why did the force's intelligence fail so badly?
5 Why did West Midlands police take so long to arrive after the fighting started?
BACKED BY FANS
FANS, security experts and the Government's Sports Minister have queued up to back our original exposé of safety at Midland football grounds.
We sent our damning dossier to Richard Caborn MP on Monday morning. His office contacted us to say: "Thank you for the information. Richard will look into this."
The Security Industry Authority (SIA), a public body linked to the Home Office, also asked for a copy of our investigation.
The SIA is in charge of the current drive to license door staff at bars, clubs and pubs.
Spokesman Robert Buxton said: "We were surprised at your report. Security is so important these days and it is just inviting trouble not to take it seriously. "This fully backs up why we are licensing the private security industry."
Peter Smith, a top security consultant, told us: "Clubs do put their stewards through a course called the Football Stewarding Qualification, endorsed by the Football Licensing Authority. "But it's not really up to scratch when compared to courses run by the SIA and that certainly needs to change."
Fans also gave us their views. Elsie Wilson, 68, from Walsall, told us: "I have been writing to West Bromwich Albion for years with my complaints about the safety of their stewarding, but they never even had the courtesy to write back. "My husband and I have been season ticket holders for decades and it is about time people raised the issue.
"We have constant problems with congestion in the stand we sit in and the stewards seem less than able to deal with it. Goodness knows what would happen in an emergency. "It is a disaster waiting to happen." A former policeman with 15 years' experience of policing football grounds, said: "They are doing it on the cheap. Security officers and stewards should be highly-trained in all aspects of security and safety, including first aid."
Even stewards also backed our story. One Villa steward phoned our offices and said: "The vetting needs to be improved, as does the pay. "The majority of us are working damn hard and fans should remember we're doing our best. But I think the club could improve the training. It's not that great."
An Albion steward added: "I wasn't at all happy reading your article about us because I felt it put us in a bad light, but I'm still going to have a copy in my pocket at games. "That way, if fans don't do what we ask, we can show them just how dangerous it could be."
The Premier League also wrote to us to emphasise their commitment to safety. "The Premier League and its clubs view the safety of spectators as paramount in the running of our competition," they said. "Both Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion are regularly assessed by the Football Licensing Authority and visited by their local authority, who issue the clubs' safety certicates, and meet the standards set."
Shocking derby arrest
JUST hours after our story broke last week, a steward working at Aston Villa was arrested by police - for allegedly FIGHTING with a colleague.
When we originally put our concerns to the club regarding the vetting, checking and training of their stewards, they reacted with an angry statement.
It boasted of Villa's 'proud' record for football safety and claimed that the club was regarded as the 'jewel in the crown for the area' for stewarding.
But as the ill-tempered derby clash with Birmingham City drew to a close, a steward allegedly lunged at a colleague and was arrested on suspicion of assault.
The 19 year-old man, who has not been named, had been drafted in by
Villa from rivals Blues to help plug staff shortages.
A watching fan claimed: "He had been winding up Villa fans during the game and then seemingly lost his rag when they had a go back."
The teenager has now been bailed until February 8.
An Aston Villa spokesman admitted that the steward was ultimately Villa's responsibility, but added: "The steward deployed was part of a 30-strong group from Birmingham City to look after their own supporters. "He was working on the segregation area in the Lower Doug Ellis stand. "He had an altercation with a West Bromwich Albion steward, also working at Villa Park. It was broken up by stewards and police quickly."