Safe standing – The future of watching football?

Picture by Shrewsbury Town FC

By Jacob Sznober

SINCE 1990, all clubs in the first two divisions of English football have had to install and maintain all seater stadia.

These rules came into action following recommendations in a government report by Lord Justice Taylor in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster of 1989.

However, recently there has been discussions of a move back to standing at football matches – nearly 30 years after it was outlawed.

Recent British moves on safe standing

Celtic became the first club in the UK to officially re-introduce safe standing back in 2016, when nearly 3000 seats were installed into their stadium, Celtic Park.

The Scottish champions were able to do this as the law requiring all Scottish Premier League sides to have all-seater stadia was relaxed in 2011. Then, in 2015, they were granted their application for a safe standing area by Glasgow City Council.

However, in England and Wales the Football Spectators Act 1989 (as amended in 1994) still currently requires all clubs in the first two divisions of English football to provide all-seater stadia.

So, how do Europe deal with it?

PICTURE: Borussia Dortmund fans in full swing. CNN.

Outside of the UK safe standing has been used in many European Leagues, most notably in Germany.

Safe standing has been part of the German football culture for around a decade with nearly half of the Bundesliga using it. The safe standing areas in that league have often been the cheapest to buy and seem to have the best atmospheres as well, with the ‘Yellow Wall’ at Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion being a prominent example of how its should be done.

What’s the general opinion on safe standing?

Like in Germany, there seems to be an appetite for safe standing in the UK with several surveys in recent years stating so.

For example, 99% of 3,398 Middlesbrough fans stated that they would like a choice to sit or stand, whilst 96% of 7,239 fans surveyed by the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust were in favour of safe standing and 96% of 2,354 fans surveyed by the Welsh Conservatives supported the introduction of standing areas. *

Such support from British fans and clubs in favour of the idea of safe standing making a return has meant that Premier League officials have been holding detailed discussions about the topic since 2016.

What the future holds/obstructions to the idea …

PICTURE: Shrewsbury Town fans will lead the way in safe standing. Shropshire Star.

League One play-off finalists Shrewsbury Town are set to become the first club in English football to use safe standing, converting 550 seats at the Montgomery Waters Meadow into ‘rail seats’. However, several English clubs still face obstacles in their quest to successfully re-introduce safe standing.

Recently relegated West Brom had requested safe standing at the Hawthorns only for it to be rejected by Parliament in April 2018. Sports Minister Tracy Crouch stated that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport had ‘no plans to change the governments all seater policy’.

So why is the government so opposed to spectators standing in England’s top two divisions? Well part of it is due to the state of football back in the 1970’s and 80’s.

PICTURE: The Hillsborough disaster of 1989 changed football matches for fans. Mirror.

Most stadiums used during this period were built in the early 20th Century and were designed to accommodate terraced standing, without segregation. However, when hooliganism became rife during the late 1960’s/early 70’s, clubs had to segregate fans, putting up pens and fences so that fans couldn’t move.

Often times fans were packed tightly into these pens, regularly in numbers which were way over the recommended limit. In fact, too many times during this period there were cases of overcrowding which resulted in casualties, some of them fatal.

Combine this with inadequate signage at football grounds, rusting crush barriers and a perception that most football fans were hooligans and looking to cause trouble, then you’d have to say that it is amazing that nothing more catastrophic happened before the 1989 Hillsborough disaster.

Time to move on with the times?

PICTURE: Shrewsbury Town’s Montgomery Waters Meadow will introduce rail seats soon. TripAdvisor.

Using past disasters as a reason to continue to use all-seater stadia and deny the option of safe standing is, in my opinion, ludicrous.

There are several reasons for this. One reason is that the argument for all seater stadia is that if fans are sitting down, then they become more subdued. However, if you go to any football ground in the first five divisions of English football, you will see a large group of fans that stand in seated areas. This often happens when fans are away from home, and in my experience this makes for a better atmosphere anyway.

Secondly – rail seating, which is the safe standing solution used by Borussia Dortmund, Wolfsburg, Celtic and soon Shrewsbury Town among others, is widely accepted to be the safest option for fans that wish to stand and is seen as a way forward.

When installing their safe standing, Shrewsbury Town will convert all 550 seats into rail seats. It means fans can stand in a specific numbered area with a metal rail in front of every row, this eliminating the surging and crushing that plagued terraces before the 90s.

Thirdly, the technology and systems behind the admission of supporters into football grounds has greatly improved since the late 80’s, meaning only the right number of fans can be admitted into each area these days.

PICTURE: How your average turnstile looks nowadays. Accrington Stanley.

Finally, in my opinion the government appears to be very ignorant when it comes to how supporters act whilst at matches. Their decision to reject standing areas makes it seems as though they cannot trust fans to stand at matches without becoming hooliganistic. It just shows how out of touch they have become.

I appreciate that the Hillsborough Disaster still lives long in the memory for many, and of course it should never be forgotten, but fortunately technology now exists whereby everybody attending a football match, whether sitting or standing, can remain safe throughout.

With technology readily-available to make safe standing a success, and examples of how it can improve the atmosphere at games being evident, it is no wonder that a petition of 100,000 signatures has been sent to parliament asking them to rethink the government’s policy on safe standing.

I am proud that my club Shrewsbury Town has become a pioneer in safe standing in the English leagues, and I personally would not be surprised to see a lot of the clubs in the first two tiers of English football follow suit and introduce safe standing areas in the next decade.

*Facts taken from Government findings (http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN03937)

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