Safe standing areas could be installed at Premier League grounds as early as next summer, despite ongoing government concerns, according to expert Jon Darch.
The founder of the Safe Standing Roadshow predicts that a system known as rail seating is on the horizon for the English football’s top flight, and said: “My gut feeling is that we are heading for its introduction in August 2018.”
Premier League clubs have discussed the possibility of using rail seating, formally adopted in Germany in the 1998/99 season.
Currently, their stadia have to be all-seater because of legislation implemented after the Taylor Report into the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989 in which 96 Liverpool fans were killed.
Celtic introduced a 2,600-capacity section of rail seating at Celtic Park in last year, and it has been widely hailed as a success.
Despite this, the UK government recently stated that it remains “unconvinced” by safe standing but says it will continue to “monitor the situation”.
However, Darch told me that Celtic’s rail seating ‘trial’ has put safe standing firmly on the agenda of both politicians and football’s administrators.
“Celtic don’t like to use the word ‘trial’ when talking about their rail seating section. As far as they are concerned, it’s here to stay, but they call it a ‘trial’ to keep Glasgow city council happy,” he said.
England’s top-flight grounds have been all-seater since the 1994-95 season for safety reasons.
But fans continue to rise to their feet during games, and away fans often stand throughout a match.
Many supporters have called for the introduction of rail seating, which allows standing but prevents the kind of dangerous crushing that was once common on the terraces.
Since 2011, Darch has been on a mission to enhance the credibility of rail seating by touring a roadshow around the UK to give people a real taste of the benefits of a system which has worked so successfully in other countries, most notably Germany.
“Most big German grounds were once almost two-thirds standing, and the reason they invented rail seats was because Uefa said games in its competitions in the future had to be played in all-seater stadia.
“That was a problem for German clubs because they had these big terraces. Also, they were member-controlled, their members were fans, and the fans wanted to carry on standing.”
On the agenda
Although Darch is pleased at the progress he still can’t quite understand why it has taken until now for the Premier League to explore the idea. In a TalkSPORT poll, just over 90% of fans questioned said they supported the introduction of safe standing.
“I think it’s very likely that the clubs will mandate [Premier League executive chairman] Richard Scudamore to explore further the possibilities with the government, and my gut feeling is that we are heading for the introduction of rail seating in August 2018,” he said.
“It’s strange that the Premier League has never discussed it with their clubs, and the clubs have never sat down together to discuss the topic until now.
“But the main thing is that it’s on the agenda and the government will listen to Scudamore a lot more than they do to clubs and especially fans on the matter.
“With the power the Premier League has, it can certainly make it happen.”
Darch stressed that comparisons between traditional open terraces and modern safe standing/rail seating sections are “daft and irrelevant”.
“People fall very easily into the trap that conventional terraces were unsafe,” he said.
“Yes, the design of safe standing is different and, yes, there is far less possibility of movement in a rail seating area. But well-maintained and well-managed terraces like they have at Burton Albion’s ground are completely safe.
“What caused Hillsborough, and what causes nearly every major every disaster at sports stadia or other large public assemblies of people is poor management of a moving crowd.
“It happened at Ellis Park in South Africa in 2001 – 43 people lost their lives, and if you read the judge’s views of that disaster, it read nearly exactly the same as Lord Justice Taylor’s on Hillsborough.
“That stadium was and is an all-seater ground and a top five-star Fifa stadium. It’s a good stadium, but because there was a failure of management of a moving crowd at the point of entry, people died.”
Safe standing economics
Some cite the cost of introducing safe standing as the main reasons for clubs’ hesitation to progress with the idea.
The Safe Standing Roadshow website gives an example of how it could impact on a club’s matchday revenue:
Current capacity: 35,000
Two-tier stand behind each goal
Lower tier of the home end (3,500 seats) converted to safe standing
A section of the away end (1,750) converted to safe standing
Total seat spaces converted: 5,250 (15% of capacity)
Total standing spaces created: 9,450 (5,250 x 1.8)
Revised total capacity: 39,200 (+4,200, i.e. +12%)
Example seat price: £25
Example standing price: £18
Total gate receipt potential before: £875,000 per match / £17.5m per 20 games
Total gate receipt potential after: £913,850 per match / £18.25m per 20 games
Potential gate receipt increase per 20-game season: £750,000
Potential total extra revenue (incl. fans’ spend on catering etc.): £1.4m
Source: The Safe Standing Roadshow.
Darch said: “Rail seating has huge potential to bring the price of tickets down, with more space created by the system. There is a £30 cap now on away tickets in the Premier League [thanks to] protests by fans.
“We can make more progress on this in the future and if and when rail seating is introduced.
If the rules and regulations in this country permit more than one spectator per space – there’s room to do that- then clubs could reduce their ticket prices for that area and still make the same amount of money or even more.”
Darch predicts fans to have a big say on prices, as they did at Liverpool earlier this season when fans staged a walkout protest after the club’s owners proposed a hike in certain tickets.
“Liverpool fans are the perfect example of the amount of power spectators hold,” he explained. “They made the clubs owners change their mind on the ticket increase idea and it typified that football is all about the fans. It was a great moment.”
Darch believes that the introduction of safe standing would be a fitting tribute to the victims of Hillsborough and their families, that the link between the disaster and the standing ban is built on a “falsehood”.
“It’s based on the idea that fans who like to stand are hooligans, and therefore it says the 96 were hooligans and implies indirectly that they were guilty of the disaster which unfolded that day”
“It is assumed that the standing ban was brought in because Lord Justice Taylor decided that standing up at football was somehow dangerous and the only way to watch it was to be sit down. That isn’t the truth.
“The truth is: the standing ban was brought in because the Thatcher government saw it as a means of countering hooliganism in the same way that they saw the idea of a national ID card scheme as a means of countering hooliganism.
“Before April 15th 1989, Thatcher’s government were already moving towards all-seater stadia and the national ID card scheme.
“In many ways, the disaster at Hillsborough gave them an excuse to bring in a piece of legislation which they probably wouldn’t have been able to bring in due to the opposition they would had faced had there not been that disaster.
“If the Hillsborough families who still oppose standing think about that, the reality is that the standing ban is actually a huge outrageous insult to the good names of their loved ones.
“It’s based on the idea that football fans who like to stand are hooligans, and therefore it says the 96 were hooligans and implies indirectly that they were guilty of the disaster which unfolded that day.”
Views changing on Merseyside
Liverpool have in the past made it known that they do not wish to contribute or engage to the debate on safe-standing out of respect for the Hillsborough families who oppose the idea. But Darch believes it is a view which is changing.
“Every single member in that room at the spirit of Shankly AGM were in favour of rail seating” – John Darch
Liverpool Echo journalist James Pearce says Liverpool and the Hillsborough families should be deeply involved in any discussion which takes place on the topic, but Darch feels it shouldn’t be dismissed if they choose not to.
“It would be nice to have them heavily involved, not only the families but the fans as well. But if they don’t wish to engage in the discussion then it shouldn’t be held back,” he said.
In September 2016 Liverpool supporter group The Spirit of Shankly held a meeting on whether they should formally adopt a position of safe-standing and the reaction by the members was very positive.
Group chairman Jay McKenna told the Liverpool Echo: “As an organisation, we have always taken a step back from the conversation on ‘safe standing’ and never really joined in.”
But following the Hillsborough inquest last year, which ruled the fans were unlawfully killed, and the successful trial at Celtic, the group felt it was the right time to have a discussion on whether now is the time to formally adopt a position.
The supporters’ group decided to ask all their members online their views of rail-seating and the return of standing, and the results which came back were staggering.
“The first person who had to speak in the room was a man who had lost his brother at Hillsborough and Spirit of Shankly then widened that question to all their membership online,” said Darch.
“Every single member present at the at the Spirit of Shankly AGM who spoke were in favour of rail seating. Online, 93% came back saying ‘yes we should adopt a formal position of safe standing’ and now they have set out a long and very in-depth consultation time table.
That will take them through to late spring-early summer 2017 where they will announce their formal position on standing.”