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Campaigners confident Premier League will be allowed safe standing soon

Jeremy Inson June 16, 2020
Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

Jon Darch knows more about safe standing in football than most. After all he spent much of the past decade driving around the UK in a borrowed white van showing football officials, fans, and media what safe standing and rail seating is all about, as part of the Safe Standing Roadshow.

So, when he predicts that there could be safe standing areas at Premier League grounds “by the start of the 2021-22 season,” it is an opinion worth listening to.

“There wasn’t a single football club I’d taken the roadshow to that said, ‘that’s a daft idea, it will never fly’,” Darch told The Focus.

“Now I would say there is not a single club in the Premier League who aren’t to some extent making plans for it already. Some are very advanced, who know where they’d do it, the minute they have the green light.”

In April Manchester United were given permission to install a 1,500-rail seat section in their 76,000-capaciity Old Trafford home.

Rail seats are seats that can be locked into place to allow standing, with a rail in front to lean on that stops surges to the front that were common-place on terraces in the past, and by standing fans in seating areas since 1994.

Old Trafford Breakthrough

5 Jun 1996: A general view of Old Trafford, Manchester home of Manchester United football club and site of the 1996 European Football Championships. Mandatory Credit: Mike Hewitt/Allsport UK

For Manchester United fans, it was a huge breakthrough in a campaign that started almost as soon as the Conservative government banned terraces in England’s top two leagues in August 1994 through the Football Spectators Act 1989 (as amended).

It followed the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster and the publication of the Taylor Report, that did not explicitly call for all-seater stadia but was swiftly pounced upon by the leading clubs to introduce them as a way of raising match-day revenue.

The completion of the Hillsborough Inquest in 2016 which ruled that the 96 deaths were caused by failures of control, access and fences penning in the fans, rather than the supporters’ behaviour on the terraces helped take away much of the political will to block safe standing and meant by April this year Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur had already installed rail seating areas in their grounds.

While they and Manchester United cannot yet use them as standing areas, since 2016 Scottish champions Celtic have been among several clubs in the Scottish leagues who can use standing areas for domestic matches because clubs in Scotland don’t come under the auspices of the Football Licencing Authorities (FLA), as clubs in England and Wales do.

Political Support

Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Their success bolstered calls for safe standing areas to be installed in the Premier League and Championship, and the Conservatives included a commitment to “work with fans and clubs towards introducing safe standing” in their 2019 General Election manifesto.

Then in January this year Sports Minister, Nigel Adams, said that the Government was “very keen” to deliver the Manifesto commitment but would have to be “guided by the [Sports Ground Safety Authority] evidence and be mindful of everyone; the fans, the Hillsborough families.”

“The Sports Ground Stadium Authority (SGSA) have been running a study into standing practices at a variety of types of grounds,” Darch said. “They were looking at fans standing on terraces, fans standing at grounds with rail seats and fans standing at all-seater stadiums with conventional seats to see if rail seats enhance safety.

“The interim report went to the sports minister Nigel Adams (in February) and said that rail seats had a positive impact of supporter safety and he said he would read their final report in the summer.

“If, with a very fair wind, (safe standing areas will be open) by the time fans are allowed back in their stadium, probably more likely by the start of the 2021-22 season if fans aren’t allowed back in stadia until Christmas.

“By the time fans return to Old Trafford they might not only find a 1,500-rail seat section, but also that they will be able to stand in it.”

Manchester United Supporters’ Trust (MUST) chief executive Duncan Drasdo was at the heart of efforts to convince Manchester United of the benefit of installing rail seats.

He has been a season ticket holder at Old Trafford for over 30 years, and someone who has worked hard with Manchester United, Greater Manchester Police and Trafford Council to have rail seats installed.

The Old Trafford atmosphere has come under fire for its lacklustre nature, not least from former captain Roy Keane whose reference in 2000 to fans eating their fill of ‘prawn sandwiches’ rather than paying attention to the action on the field appeared to sum up the corporatisation of England’s most successful club.

“I think that people prefer the rail seats because it stops people building up crushes or people falling sideways as well as forwards,” Drasdo told The Focus.

“It is something I’ve argued for, for many years. I got frustrated because it could have been done from the start as it is compliant with the all-seater regulations and makes it safer for everyone in a seated area.

“We used to have the reputation of the best atmosphere in Europe, and I think it used to give us a big advantage. Now we’ve gone to the other extreme and it is among the worst and in England it is nowhere near where it used to be.”

German Inspiration

Photo by Stuart Franklin/Bongarts/Getty Images

Drasdo and Darch have been close observers of Germany’s Bundesliga where safe standing is common-place and a big selling point for their fans.

When Darch is not cheering on Bristol City, he is a regular on the terraces at Union Berlin who are planning to take their standing capacity to 28,692 in the next wave of expansion to their Stadion an der Alten Försterei home.

After joining the Football Supporters Federation’s (FSF) safe standing campaign in 1999 his fluent German meant he was given the task of developing links with the Bundesliga clubs and those involved in the manufacture of safe seating areas in Germany.

It led him to British seat manufacturer FERCO and the development of a safe seating prototype that he took with him on the road to over 100 clubs in a bid to win hearts and minds with his Safe Standing Roadshow.

“Back in the mid-2000s the FSF campaign was not clear and concise,” he said. “It was slightly confused, and people were saying they wanted safe standing and the world at large, the media, politicians and to a large extent football club authorities were hearing ‘we want terraces back’.

“I’d support the argument that a well-maintained terrace is perfectly safe, otherwise it wouldn’t be allowed at League One and League Two clubs, it wouldn’t be allowed at rugby, but if I tried to persuade politicians to give them the idea that we wanted terraces again, it was always going to be a hard argument to win.

“But if you make clear that what you want is not what they might consider a death trap, does not look like a terrace and has added safety features, you have a far better chance of winning the case. I thought the way to go was to focus 100% on rail seats.”

Building Momentum

Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

While momentum appears to be overwhelmingly towards safe seating areas being given the green for Premier League and Championship matches, there are a few remaining pockets of resistance.

The Hillsborough Family Support Group that worked tirelessly to clear the Liverpool fans of any responsibility for the Hillsborough Disaster has been a consistent opponent to standing areas. They did not reply to The Focus’ request for comment.

There is also the feeling that there are still some in power that regard football fans with contempt, as demonstrated by the efforts of the UK Football Policing Unit to move Premier League matches to neutral venues on its return.

The death of 96 fans at the Hillsborough Disaster means a lot of attention has been focused on Liverpool and the emotive issue of whether fans can again stand on The Kop. That said, when the Spirit of Shankly supporters’ group ran a poll into what type of arrangement fans wanted over three quarters replied in favour of rail seating being installed.

“In 2017, we canvassed views from our membership and fan base,” Spirit of Shankly said. “Almost 18,000 supporters – an unprecedented number in football supporter surveys of this type – took part in our dialogue and 88% of respondents were in favour of rail seating areas at football and supporters having the choice to sit or stand.

“Spirit of Shankly believe every club and their fans should be able to choose the model for their home stadium and work with the relevant authorities to meet prerequisite safety requirements.

“Liverpool supporters, more than most, understand the arguments for safety and the emotion of such a debate. We also know fans are already standing at Anfield and across the county every week. They should be allowed to do so safely and in comfort.”

Changing Priorities

Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Darch pinpoints 2011 when Liverpool Chief Executive Ian Ayers stepped down as when Liverpool began to show interest. Ayers had said Liverpool would be led by the families of those who died at Hillsborough, but after his departure the club has said they would be driven by what the fans wanted.

For now, the focus at Liverpool is on developing the Anfield Road end of the ground. It is a project that needs to take place between seasons so the earliest it can open is in time for the 2021-22 season. Whether there will be time to install rail seats on The Kop at the same time remains to be seen.

“A lot of their fans would love rail seats on The Kop and it is clear they can all recognise that once the Anfield Road stand is finished, the next project on the list is The Kop,” Darch said.

“It is inconceivable that that thoughts haven’t gone through the heads of the powers at be at Liverpool Football Club. I don’t know how far advanced they’d be, but it’s inconceivable that they haven’t thought about it.”

Should things go as Darch hopes, it would mean the five-times European champions could have safe standing installed for both home and away fans within the next 18 months.

England’s two biggest clubs, among the most famous in the world, running safe standing areas in their world class stadia would be a satisfying end to a campaign that stretched from Darch sneaking it offices to talk to club officials at secret meetings, to glad-handing Members of Parliament in supporter club bars.

“To have the most famous club in the world to have rail seats at Old Trafford raises the bar and makes it so visible,” Darch said. “When they open that area the media coverage will be huge and global.

“Celtic changed a lot. A large installation of safe seating in the UK, good pictures so the (news) stories are now correct. The message is clear, and people understand it. No-one thinks we want crumbling terraces again.”

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Jeremy is a London-based journalist specialising in rugby union and Olympic sports. Tokyo 2020 would have been his sixth Olympic Games and would have come soon after Japan 2019, his fourth Rugby World Cup.