The Football League is facing mounting pressure to back trials for safe standing after an overwhelming majority of Championship clubs went against the League's stance and voted in favour of permitting trials at a meeting earlier this season.
Standing is banned in the top two divisions in England but a significant number of clubs in the Championship and a growing number in the Premier League support allowing a return to limited terracing if trials are successful. The Premier League and the Football League remain steadfastly opposed but the Football League's position is being potentially undermined by its own members.
A motion supporting safe-standing trials could be included on the agenda at next month's meeting of all 72 Football League club chairmen and, if it is, its supporters are increasingly confident it will be passed. In that case, member clubs would expect the League to lobby for the necessary change in the law. The Government has an "open mind" over the issue but is still a distance from being won round.
At a meeting of Championship clubs in Leicester in February, 21 of the 22 chief executives present voted in favour of a motion proposing the Football League "encourage and support the instigation of a rail seat/safe-standing trial period at any League club". Middlesbrough are understood to have been the only club to vote against.
Some clubs believed the League would then begin lobbying the Government over a change in legislation to allow standing in the second tier – as in the Premier League it is banned under a 1994 amendment to the Football Spectators Act 1989 – but the issue was instead dropped as the League remained to be convinced it was a battle worth fighting, despite what one chief executive labelled as an "overwhelming mandate from the Championship".
In a letter sent to Championship clubs in April the League's chief operating officer, Andy Williamson, wrote "it was agreed that the League should not advocate rail seating/safe standing. The matter will not be progressed by the League but if a club wishes to pursue this initiative then that is a matter for them".
It is a response described as a "complete cop-out" by a Championship chief executive who was at the meeting. There is a concern among some Championship clubs that the League does not have the appetite to push the issue, given the stance of the Premier League and the government. Without the support of the Football League there is no chance of Championship clubs being given permission to hold trials of a system based on the model successfully used in Germany, where seats can be tipped up to allow standing for designated fixtures. Club grounds have to be licensed by the Sports Ground Safety Authority, which has no plans to allow standing.
The SGSA no longer opposes the contemporary version of standing because of safety issues, but it and the Association of Chief Police Officers cite concerns over crowd management. Another executive at a Championship club suggested the authorities were too ready to use the spectre of hooliganism as a "convenient" way to reject any move towards standing.
The Government could instruct the SGSA to allow trials to take place but, without the backing of the Premier and Football Leagues, is unlikely to be convinced, as the Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson, put it late last year, of the "very clear demand" for its return.
Yet the number of clubs in favour of safe standing is growing. Both the promoted clubs, Cardiff City and Hull City, support it, as do Crystal Palace and Watford, who contest the play-off final next week. Aston Villa, Sunderland, Newcastle United and Swansea City are in favour, while senior figures at West Ham United and Arsenal have indicated a willingness to explore the issue. David Gold, West Ham's chairman, wants a rail-seat section in the Olympic Stadium.
Villa have emerged as the biggest supporters among top-flight clubs, having even earmarked an area within Villa Park where a trial would be staged. Outside the top flight support is widespread. Brentford also back safe standing – their chairman, Greg Dyke, is soon to take on the chairmanship of the Football Association.
- More about: