Soccer clubs appeal for extra time to fit stands

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The Independent Online
A DOZEN of England's top football clubs, struggling to meet the August deadline on all-seater stadiums, will be told 'within weeks' if the Government has softened its policy on ground safety and granted them more time.

The Independent on Sunday has learnt that up to a dozen clubs from the Premier and First divisions have made private applications to the Football Licensing Authority for extensions. The Department of National Heritage vigorously denied it intended to abandon the all-seater stadium policy adopted after the Hillsborough tragedy in 1989 and the Taylor Report which followed.

However, granting time concessions to clubs who have failed to meet the August deadline for Premier and First division clubs, or any other watering down of the safety recommendations, is likely to be strongly opposed by clubs which have already spent millions of pounds bringing their grounds up to the specifications laid down in the Taylor Report.

New technology incorporated into the latest generation of safety barriers was inspected recently by the Heritage minister, Ian Sproat. The minister was said to be very impressed, prompting speculation that standing spectator areas may yet survive.

Josephine Swift, general manager of Queen's Park Rangers in London, said if any reprieve was granted 'it would be quite a shock'. QPR still has standing space for 4,200 supporters, but developments planned for next year will mean a slight reduction in the ground's current 21,389 capacity as it converts to seating-only.

'This is not the sort of thing we want to hear at this time,' said Ms Swift. 'We've already made our plans, got the contractors on board and the money already spent has been substantial.'

At the end of this season Liverpool plans to rip out the famous Kop terracing and replace it with a multi-million- pound new stand. The ground capacity will fall, and only a further two-tier stand development will bring the ground back to its current 45,000 capacity.

Michael Spinks, general manager of First-division Barnsley, confirmed yesterday that there were around a dozen clubs which had applied to the Football Licensing Authority for more time. Barnsley's 27,398-capacity ground currently has only 9,576 seats.

'It would give us real problems accommodating away fans,' he said. 'That would mean enormous problems for the police.

'We're not just doing this for ourselves. There are other clubs that will benefit in the future. And the majority of them would struggle to become all- seater next year.'

Premier clubs planning large-scale end-of-season developments to meet August's deadline include Manchester United, Blackburn, Newcastle, Wimbledon, Crystal Palace, and Tottenham.

First division clubs Crystal Palace, Leicester, Charlton, Bristol City, Luton, Watford and Wolves said yesterday that they had spent millions to meet the August deadline. Barnsley, Sunderland, Derby and Portsmouth confirmed yesterday that they were applying to the FLA for an extension on the August deadline. League sources said that at least eight other clubs had done the same.

If time concessions are granted they will be seen by some clubs as effectively an indirect reward to those who have failed to meet the Taylor specifications on time. Lawyers, according to one club source, would 'almost certainly' be brought in to examine if the Government created unfair competition, allowing some clubs to ignore their grounds in favour of other priorities.

'It would be a legal minefield,' said a source at Manchester United.

John de Quidt, chief executive of the FLA, said he had received 'a handful' of applications for more time.

Those given more time should have proved to the FLA that they had a 'unique case'; that the delay was 'unforeseen'; and that not making the deadline was 'outwith their control'. In addition, those clubs which can prove they will shortly relocate to an all-seat ground are unlikely to have short-term all-seat demands placed on their existing ground.

The FLA will inform the Heritage Secretary of its recommendations within weeks. The Heritage department will then announce the extensions.

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