Prior to the Everton game, I attended a Safe Standing meeting at the Waldorf pub in central Manchester that was organised by City’s 1894 Supporters Group.
The group, who you will probably already be familiar with, have been proactive in recent times in trying to get the atmosphere back in a ground, that like many others nowadays, needs more atmosphere. However, this was not about that, though indirectly it is, as I think it’s safe to presume that a standing crowd makes more noise than a sitting one.
Safe standing (and the word safe is utterly redundant in that phrase), has been a delicate subject for years now, for reasons that don’t need explaining. The ramifications of the Hillsborough tragedy, and the Taylor Report that followed, made much needed changes to grounds around the country. One of those was of course all-seater stadiums, a situation that remains to this day in top-flight football. However, there is a groundswell of opinion forming that change is needed. That safe-standing areas, which by definition pose no threat to safety, should be introduced into English grounds. The proposition is that this would be achieved by following the German example where numerous top-level teams have some form of standing for home and away fans for non-European games, in the form of rail seats.
One thing needs to be made clear. The days of turning up to a game, walking onto a terrace and choosing where to stand are gone, and gone forever in my opinion. The introduction of standing areas in modern grounds, should it happen, will bear little resemblance to the nostalgic images of masses swaying on huge terraces. Fans would still have a designated spot – the only difference would be the ability to stand. Rail seats (or “Variositze” as they are called in Germany), the system that would be implemented, are robust metal seats with a high back, which fitted together form a long, strong rail along a row of terracing. The seats fold up flush, leaving more space than in traditional seated areas seen around the country currently. These locked up seats can be released easily for European games, where standing is not permitted. Most advocates of the system see it filling only 10-15% of the stadium, with the remainder staying at it is.
At the meeting on Saturday afternoon, as the pub crowd downstairs roared with delight as Newcastle sealed an unlikely three points, three guest speakers gave their views on safe standing.
First to speak was Jon Darch, head of the Safe Standing Roadshow campaign (and for the record, a Bristol City fan). He was extremely knowledgeable about the whole issue, having toured extensively around the country campaigning for change. Having studied German and spent much time there attending matches, he could give detailed information on what a new standing area could entail. In Germany, such areas are often geared towards away fans, but plenty of clubs have them in the home sections too, Hannover being a prime example and of course Borussia Dortmund. Darch commented on how it is time for fans to put pressure on clubs and in turn for the clubs to pressure politicians. He mentioned though that Labour seem to be keen to maintain the status quo and not rock the boat, especially with the Hillsbrorough enquiry still ongoing. Perhaps when that is finished, there may be a greater desire for change in Westminster.
In the Football League, 75% of the clubs had mandated their executive to go to government and seek permission for trials, but Premier League clubs had been more coy about speaking out on the matter, seemingly waiting for other clubs to make the first move, whilst privately being open to the idea – City are known to be monitoring the situation after Darch made a presentation to executives. The Premier League is not going to push for change in itself, but is essentially the will of 20 clubs, so if 14+ clubs push for such change, the League is obliged to go to government.
The second speaker was Dave Kelly of Everton’s Blue Union and member of the Football Supporters’ Federation. He mentioned how there has been a total lack of fan action on the matter, which helps explain why nothing has changed. He said that he himself was opposed so standing in the past, due to ignorance but he now thinks it is a fan’s right to be able to stand, in the same way that it is a fan’s right to sit down.
He added that meetings are fine but will not achieve change as it is preaching to the converted. Fans as a group could make a very powerful group, especially with an election on the horizon, so they need to make their presence felt. He also urged the need to contribute to phone ins, to go on the radio and get the message out there.
John Leech, a life-long City fan and Liberal Democrat MP for Withington was the last to speak, and spoke about why he thought it should be introduced. He thought the current policy “bonkers” and can see no reason why it should not be introduced, opining that standing in seated areas, which is commonplace, is far more dangerous.
He said there was no great political will at the moment for change, and that Premier League clubs were risk-averse on the matter, happy to do nothing. He did say though that safe standing will happen – it was a matter of when, not if. Politicians, he added, have to make a decision, and a club needs to test the water. He said to pursue your MP on the matter (unless you live in Withington of course), and pointed out that the Liberal Democrats had changed their policy on the issue in 2007 so were on board. No one can suggest it isn’t safe.
The meeting was wrapped up as ESPN Brazil carried out a few interviews, and I made my way to the match, proud owner of a signed Joe Hart photo won in the half-time raffle. The general consensus I felt is that fans must act together on this, across the club divides. If you feel strongly on the matter, if you support the right of a fan to stand, of a football fan to have more rights again, then take a few minutes out of your day to join the Football Supporters’ Federation, which has a membership of 500,000 fans (www.fsf.org.uk). Also, follow the 1894 Group on Facebook and Twitter for regular updates. The 1894 group are talking to a number of organisations and indeed other fan groups (there will be joint action with Hull fans at February’s match for example) and will work with anyone to ensure they have a voice and can push for safe standing through official channels. As a starting point they are hoping that the 1894 Group becomes officially affiliated with the Football Supporters Federation.
The Safe Standing Roadshow already works alongside the Football Supporters Federation’s Safe Standing campaign, and receives the support of a large number of smaller supporters clubs.
The old match-day experience will never be re-claimed. But with fans acting together we can work towards a better match-day experience and the right to stand that poses no more threat than sitting down or standing in front of seats. There is no reason why new legislation cannot be introduced, but it needs a concerted effort from fans to make it happen, and the sooner the better.