A growing number of Premier League and Championship clubs favour the introduction of safe standing – with Aston Villa and Peterborough prepared to host small-scale trials – but opposition to the return of standing in the top-two tiers of English football remains among senior police officers, whose advice the government pay close heed to.
While an increasing number of match commanders – the officers in charge of policing games – are also believed to have been persuaded that a safe-standing trial should be held, those above them, represented by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) are wary. “We need to be convinced,” said a spokesperson, but the body is happy to “engage” in the debate.
The introduction of standing areas is also strongly opposed by members of the Hillsborough Families Support Group. Margaret Aspinall, chair of the HFSG, said: “Standing should never, ever come back. I do not think there is anything safe about standing. I feel insulted that while people are trying to fight for justice for Hillsborough, that this campaign is growing now.”
The Football Supporters Federation’s campaign for its re-introduction in the top tiers in English and Scottish football, based on the “rail-seating” model widely and successfully used in Germany, has gathered momentum, and increasingly vocal support among clubs, supporters and members of Parliament. Roger Godsiff, MP for Birmingham Hall Green, hosted a discussion in Parliament. Over 50 MPs have backed his early day motion for a trial to be conducted in the top two tiers.
Standing is banned in the Premier League. In the Championship promoted clubs have to have all-seated stadium by their third season in the division – a prospect Peterborough face if they stay up this season. The club want to host a trial at one end of London Road, which accommodates around 2,000 supporters. Villa have identified a smaller area of around 150 seats next to the Holte End which could be used.
“Whenever we have discussed the topic with our fans we have had almost unanimous support for such a trial,” said Paul Faulkner, Villa’s chief executive. “We fully support the FSF’s campaign to allow small-scale trials of safe standing areas. We believe Villa Park could be potentially used for such a trial and would like the opportunity to progress plans further.”
Superintendent Steven Graham of West Midlands Police, an experienced match-day commander at Villa and Birmingham City, supports a trial. “As a commander we would not be riddled with fear if overseeing a standing area,” he said.
West Ham United’s David Gold has also spoken in support of standing, while clubs at the upper end of the Premier League are also understood to favour trials but are unwilling to say so in public. The Premier League and the government remain opposed to any change from the current regulations.
In Scotland, Celtic and Aberdeen favour introducing limited standing areas. That will be a decision for the Scottish government and there is considerably less opposition to its re-introduction north of the border. If it does return in the Scottish Premier League, it would make it more difficult for the government to prevent English or Welsh clubs following suit.
Cardiff City support the idea and if the club could secure Welsh Assembly backing for its introduction that too could have wider implications for English leagues. The same applies to Swansea, who are currently looking for ways to increase the capacity of the Liberty Stadium. The FSF suggest that 1,800 standing supporters could be accommodated where 1,000 sit, although whether ground authorities would permit that ratio on safety lines is open to question.
Currently large groups of supporters stand at many grounds, a practice the authorities admit is almost impossible to stop. Supporters of safe standing argue that its introduction would make grounds safer as the current practice of standing in seated areas is potentially dangerous.
“We have got very little experience of what standing would look like in a 21st century football ground in the UK,” said Superintendent Green. “We have experience of it from the 1980's in the UK and we have experiences of it today in Germany. We are not proposing tearing up football grounds. We need to start gathering some data so that people in the industry can make decisions to give supporters the best customer experience.”
Bob Symns, Peterborough’s chief executive, believes standing is “endemic” in English football. If the club has to introduce seating areas on its current banks of terracing from next season, he has little doubt that many supporters will chose to stand in them.
“That’s a challenge we have in this country – people will stand in the seated areas,” said Symns. “Let’s have a look at the third way, a new way. There is an appetite from supporters but there probably isn’t an appetite from football authorities.”
Symns believes most clubs in the Championship would support at least a trial. The campaign is openly supported by Villa, Brentford, Bristol City, Burnley, Cardiff City, Crystal Palace, Derby County, Doncaster Rovers, Hull City, Peterborough United, Watford, AFC Wimbledon as well as the Scottish Premier League.