Now is the time that everything gets sorted out for the next season of English football. Various meetings will be taking place between the clubs and the authorities to discuss whatever changes they feel need to be made. At the moment, they are talking about adjusting the offside rule in relation to VAR, giving attacking players 10-20 centimetres leeway in marginal calls. I think that is ridiculous; the system is meant to eradicate obvious errors, the ‘howlers’ so to speak. If there isn’t an obvious mistake, they should stay with the referees’ decision.
That’s not what I’ll be discussing in this piece though. The issue of ‘safe standing’ in football grounds in England has been raised again by the publication of a government report which says that seating areas in stadiums which incorporate barriers have ‘a positive impact on spectator safety.’ And this, coupled with the government’s statement that it would work with clubs and fans to introduce safe standing has seen the concept come an important step closer to being reality.
But what is safe standing? Well, at the moment, grounds in England’s top two tiers are required by law to be all seaters, after the tragic events of the Hillsborough disaster which saw 96 Liverpool fans killed. In the aftermath, the Taylor Report made recommendations for stadiums to become all-seaters and the government embraced them as law. Safe standing looks to keep the safety of fans intact while also allowing fans to stand throughout the entirety of the game, rather than just at moments of excitement. Essentially a rail goes across the section, often with a seat built in, which prevents the crushing and rushes that we used to see. Rail seating also means that you do not risk overcrowding, as was sometimes an issue.
Standing is currently allowed in League One and League Two and several top flight clubs have been looking into the possibility. Tottenham’s new stadium has ‘safe seating’ as an approach to future-proof the stadium for any potential implementation. Wolverhampton Wanderers have done the same thing at Molinuex. Manchester United have stated they are looking into the possibility of safe seating at Old Trafford and Everton are planning a safe standing section when their new stadium is built. The F.A., Premier League and EFL have all stated that they would support any clubs who choose to implement safe standing if local authorities allow it.
As Scotland isn’t bound by the same laws, safe standing is perfectly legal. In fact, Celtic have had a safe standing section at Celtic Park since the start of the 2016/17 season and there have been no incidents.
Personally, I think that safe standing is something that should be looked at very closely. From my personal experience of matchdays at a Premier League ground, you are standing for the vast majority of the match, depending on where your seats are. The seats are mainly used at half-time. It doesn’t allow in certain circumstances for an increased capacity, but it is better suited to allow fans to do what they most often do at a game. It won’t be a huge throng either, like we saw in the 70s and 80s. Each space is numbered and fans are required to stand there, they can’t skip about.
Speaking from personal experience and opinion, the best parts of the ground for atmosphere are where the crowd is standing more often than not. Obviously, the safety of fans is absolutely paramount and must be the first priority, above all else. If it was in any way less safe than the current arrangement, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. But when everyone is standing up in a section, any pressure from behind turns the seatback into a tripwire. With the design of rail seating, that is simply not possible. The rail behind and in front prevents that. More and more clubs are coming to the conclusion that installing rail seating would actually improve the match day experience and make their jobs of stewarding easier. Many club’s stewards have given up telling people to sit down, and there are rarely announcements over the PA to that effect.
Rather like VAR, this is something that I believe will be here sooner rather than later. All the evidence points towards it being just as if not safer than the current setup. It’s been in effect in the Bundesliga and in Austria and even in Scotland for multiple seasons and the feedback from fans is exceedingly positive. Even Liverpool fans have started to come around to the idea. In a poll carried out by a supporter’s organisation a few years ago, 88.1% said they were in favour of safe seating. The government should look to start implementing this as soon as is feasible. It would make grounds safer and easier to steward. You may even get a better atmosphere as a result.