Campaign for safe standing gathers pace with news of Manchester United interest, but authorities refuse to move
Manchester United's interest adds momentum yet need for law change is a major hurdle
Friday 18 October 2013
This is an issue that football's authorities wish would go away. The Premier League is opposed to it, the Football League is opposed to it, the police are opposed to it, the Sports Ground Safety Authority is opposed to it and, because they are all opposed to it, so is the Government. And yet it will not go away, and club by club the mood is changing.
Safe standing – the name is used advisedly to differentiate it from past associations with terracing at football grounds – is one of two major issues that exercise supporters' groups in England. The other is ticket pricing and the Football Supporters Federation have mounted an increasingly successful campaign to that end. The two issues are linked, in that one can lead to the other, although a successful end to their push for safe standing remains distant, and one that has sizeable obstacles to overcome.
Yet the willingness of Manchester United, however cautiously the toe is first dipped, to at least take a look at what safe standing might mean within Old Trafford will be seen as a potentially key moment in the campaign. United have a weight no other club within the English game can match. If they lead others will follow.
The final and highest hurdle will be a law change, altering the 1994 amendment to the Football Supporters Act of 1989, to enable clubs in the Premier League to accommodate supporters in standing areas. That requires Government action, and the Government position remains that there would have to be evidence of "very clear demand" from all parties, and that includes the police and the SGSA, to persuade a change of mind.
Like many campaigns of merit, the issue has spread from the bottom up. It was the smaller Championship clubs of recent seasons, such as Peterborough United, who took up the supporters' call for their own ends, and it has gathered momentum during recent months.
A majority of clubs in the Championship support allowing trials, and the numbers who want to explore the issue further in the Premier League are growing too. Aston Villa want to host trials of a small safe-standing area, while The Independent knows of another top-flight club that plays in a state-of-the-art stadium which would install a standing area as soon as it is allowed. There is a belief within the club that it is only a matter of time.
It will not happen soon though, and there is unlikely to be any government support while the Hillsborough inquiry is ongoing. Even though the modern standing areas are a world removed from the crumbling conditions of the late '80s and what most of the bigger clubs are looking into would be small standing areas in stadia that are largely seated, there remains strong opposition in Liverpool to any easing of the ban. Margaret Aspinall, the chair of the Hillsborough Families Support Group, said last year that she felt "insulted that while people are trying to fight for justice for Hillsborough", the safe-standing campaign was gathering support.
Some views have changed. The police and the SGSA no longer regard standing in the form in which it is practised in Germany, with rail seats, as inherently unsafe. Instead they now object on "crowd management" issues, believing standing makes controlling a crowd more difficult.
Football League clubs have been pushing the League to agitate for change but tt is not keen on carrying out its members' wishes. The Premier League remains opposed but among its ranks, and with varying degrees of support, Arsenal, West Ham, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, Hull, Swansea, Sunderland and Newcastle have expressed interest in allowing trials to take place. Add Manchester United's interest and there might be some squeaky bottoms in the League's central London offices.
Bristol City are set to include a safe-standing area in plans for a new stadium. It would be the first in Britain, but it would be their rugby cohabitees who would be the only ones allowed to use it should City return to the Championship. Celtic may well beat everyone to it. The Scottish champions are increasingly keen to open a safe standing section and the Scottish Executive does not appear ready to stand in their way. Step by step the pressure for change is mounting.
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