Stand Together

Tim Stillman column Arseblog

The Football Supporters’ Federation gave birth to the Twenty’s Plenty movement in January 2013. Gradually the campaign built momentum and with numbers of away supporters decreasing in the Premier League, as the television billions poured in, clubs became more amenable to the idea of capping away ticket prices. A blanket £30 cap on away ticket prices was duly announced for this season, a huge victory for fans on the back of a campaign expertly managed by the FSF and local supporters’ groups.

It feels as though football is beginning to countenance the idea of safe standing in top flight stadia. Obviously the Hillsborough inquiry has dominated the headlines over the last 18 months and given the quite understandable sensitivities around it, the time was not right to simultaneously mount a campaign for safe standing. The inquiry delivered some long overdue legal justice and hopefully some closure for the families of the victims.

With some respectful distance, now feels more like an opportune moment to convince clubs, authorities and the government of the case for safe standing. The starting pistol has been sounded by a couple of watershed events. Firstly, Aston Villa have openly backed the idea of standing at Villa Park, after issues with supporters persistently standing at the back of the Holte End, causing a frisson of anxiety for health and safety regulatory bodies.

Meanwhile, Celtic have introduced rail seating at Parkhead, after discovering that the recommendations of the Taylor Report were never fully absorbed into Scottish law. To coin an apposite phrase, Celtic are setting a benchmark for how safe standing could potentially work in the Premier League. They have installed rail seating so that they can comply with the regulations for European competition and reinstall seating for matches that fall under the UEFA auspices.

UEFA themselves may soon become more receptive to the idea of rail seating. Michel Platini played for Juventus when the Heysel disaster took place, which probably informed his reticence to implement the idea for European competition. Platini’s ex-communication could possibly re-open the debate within the organisation. Though current president Aleksander Čeferin from Slovenia has been quiet on the issue to this point.

Celtic have installed rail seating on a 1 for 1 basis; that is to say, extra bodies are not permitted to squeeze into the volume of space allotted for safe standing. There were 2,600 seats in the area they have turned into a standing enclosure and 2,600 people are now allowed to stand there. That would have to provide the initial template in the Premier League, at least on a pilot basis. Obviously this would have ramifications on ticket pricing in the first stages, so it would be unlikely to make the tickets cheaper in the short term.

Clubs would be left to resolve ‘local issues’ independently, such as reallocating season ticket holders that prefer to sit from the standing enclosure. The wider campaign would focus on removing the legal impediment on clubs to have all seater stadia. The vast majority of clubs in the Premier League have ‘singing sections’ or similar and these seem like the obvious places to start and where the most willing participants would currently be housed.

Most clubs have an unwritten and unspoken policy of relaxed stewarding in these sections of the ground in any case, as well as in the vast majority of away enclosures. It is only legislation that prevents clubs from admitting it openly. In many respects, standing is already happening in all Premier League grounds. Rail seating is probably safer than standing in seated areas and most clubs will realise this in private. Cardiff City quite openly adopted a ‘common sense approach’ to standing in their ground during their season in the top flight in 2013-14.

Premier League clubs are much more marketing savvy operations nowadays. If there is a groundswell of fans that want safe standing, they are likely to try to meet that appetite. Clubs are businesses and fans are customers, giving the customers what they want is one of the most basic principles of marketing. There is also an issue with Premier League crowds ageing significantly and safe standing seems like a smart way of re-engaging with young audiences. Particularly if the density of fans in standing areas can be gradually increased and ticket prices can become more affordable.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how television companies had begun to infiltrate every level of decision making in football. The price cap on away tickets and the ruling that, from next season, as least part of the away enclosure must be stationed in the lower tier of the ground, are directives with television at their heart. The atmosphere, or ‘local colour’ is something overseas viewers especially respond very favourably to when watching Premier League football.

There is little doubt that atmospheres inside Premier League grounds are becoming more muted and considered. Making tickets more affordable for away fans and positioning them closer to the pitch all plug into this desire to add colour and volume to the mise-en-scene. On that basis, television companies may be amenable to the idea and, as we have seen, their opinion means an awful lot to clubs and to the Premier League.

The Premier League is a ‘brand’ that essentially competes against other brands such as La Liga and the Bundesliga. Germany has stolen a march on England when it comes to the concept of local colour. Their grounds are far noisier thanks, in part, to rail seating which is de rigueur in most Bundesliga stadia. Indeed, football tourism is popular in Germany because people want to experience the atmosphere of Dortmund’s ‘Yellow Wall’ or the Fanladen St. Pauli. The Premier League can potentially claw back some of that competitive edge on its product with safe standing.

Safe standing also aids local stewarding inside grounds. It is easier to tell people to sit down in the seating areas if there is an area specifically designated for standing. This would go a long way to providing relief for older fans or those less able to stand for prolonged periods. Again, clubs could decide locally whether to have a more relaxed policy in the blocks immediately next to the standing areas. Likewise, during the campaign phase, the FSF and local supporters’ groups will have to carefully impact assess the idea with their own fans.

If there are any particular groups with concerns or anxieties, these will need to be addressed before a unified proposal is brought to the relevant bodies. But there is a sense that the tide is beginning to turn on this subject and smartly managed campaigning from the likes of FSF and local supporters’ clubs could tip the balance towards safe standing.

Ultimately, safe standing needs to become enshrined in law, which means a minister needs to put their name to it. The chances of persuading Whitehall are greatly increased if a unified proposal, supported by enough people, impact assessed with police and health and safety regulators is presented. Politicians want votes and if a significant mass of people demonstratively support the proposal, they will be more inclined to listen. The time is right to make a stand for safe standing.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

If you would like to see Arsenal consider the prospect of safe standing at the Emirates, then the Arsenal Supporters Trust has devised a short survey which, together with Red Action and the Black Scarf Movement, they will present to Arsenal, the FSF and the Premier League. It takes around 2 minutes to complete and can be filled out here. 



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