A distance of just over 70 miles and a couple of divisions separates Anfield from the Montgomery Waters Meadow Stadium at Shrewsbury Town. This week events around these two football stadiums may well change the direction of dialogue about safe standing at grounds in England.
It is a subject that has for several years been debated cautiously and respectfully. On Monday night the Spirit of Shankly supporters union will announce the result of a vote among Liverpool fans on an issue that is uniquely emotive for them after the Hillsborough disaster in which 96 of their own died on a football terrace. The following day in Shropshire, Shrewsbury are launching their plans to introduce rail seating in the Salop Leisure South Stand. They aim to be the first club in England to install a safe standing area. “Although it is a fairly small ground it’s a huge milestone,” says Jon Darch, of the Safe Standing Roadshow, who has been campaigning on this topic for many years.
Shrewsbury’s development is groundbreaking in that it will be the first time a club with an all-seat stadium actively chooses to alter some of those seats to introduce a standing section. The idea took off when legislation was changed in the lower divisions. Roger Groves is a Shrewsbury fan who has been following his team since the 1970s, a tradition passed down by his father and on to his son. When he became aware of the new regulations he got in touch with Darch, fellow fans from the club’s Supporters Parliament, Shrewsbury’s chief executive, Brian Caldwell, and Ferco Seating, a local company that happened to supply Celtic with their rail seating installation. Having canvassed opinion, the idea gathered momentum.
Shrewsbury are fundraising, aiming to raise £75,000, to put rail seats into two blocks at the back of the South Stand (so as not to disturb the views of those who want to sit in front of them). They are hoping to get the money and the necessary amendments to the safety certificate during the upcoming season, allowing them to get cracking, find a gap in the fixtures to get the builders in, and host approximately 500 standing fans as soon as possible.
“I grew up standing on the old-style terracing at football grounds,” says Groves. “I used to stand on the ‘Riverside’ at the old Gay Meadow and the atmosphere was different. From speaking to the CEO he says the manager and players do like it more when the atmosphere is louder and more vibrant. Having this area behind a goal should help both the players on the pitch and supporters who do decide they want to stand have a much better and safer matchday experience. This is a massive opportunity for Shrewsbury Town to become the first club to introduce this. I do think having this as an option is a great idea. It might not be for everyone but it gives a very safe option for those who do like to stand.”
Groves hopes this will trigger a broader change in English football, encouraging more clubs to consider the introduction of rail seating. “In recent weeks since we went public there has been a lot of interest,” he observes. “More football clubs – Northampton and Plymouth, for example – have come out with comments around their intention to investigate this further. Now Premier League clubs too have begun to make positive statements towards the concept. West Bromwich Albion have recently supported this and Liverpool are canvassing their supporters on it. Obviously Liverpool is the one club who everyone will look at in terms of supporter feedback because of Hillsborough, so it’s a great stride forward for safe standing for them to do this.”
Last week Tottenham Hotspur tweeted a photograph of a handful of navy rail seats bolted down in the North Stand during the building works at White Hart Lane. “This is part of future proofing should legislation change,” they explained. “These seats are only being trialled.” Still, it all feels part of the changing momentum in terms of safe standing. Chelsea are also expected to design their new Stamford Bridge with an area of rail seating in mind.
Darch expects that within five years the environment will have changed sufficiently to give clubs the freedom to accommodate their fans in whatever percentage of seating, standing or hospitality they wish.
“It has been a background conversation for years but it is becoming mainstream,” he says. “Campaigners deliberately wanted to be respectful while the Hillsborough inquests were on. But once they were concluded last May the mood music has changed. The Spirit of Shankly sought views from Liverpool fans. The Premier League, which as a body had not discussed it previously, began collecting views from its members since November. Clubs like West Brom, and perhaps others privately, have come forward offering to be pilot sites. The successful introduction of rail seating at Celtic has also been important.” Darch has been in the terrace area at Celtic and was thrilled. “Even though it is just shy of 3,000 in a stadium that holds 60,000, when you walk into that area it hits you. It is a thing of beauty.
“The idea that what we have now is safer is illogical. We have thousands of fans every Saturday standing in areas that are not designed for purpose. You could argue that the governing body for safety at sports grounds ought to be insisting upon fitting rail seats as they are safer. Even safety officers say that if you stand with a rail in front of you and one behind you, you can’t fall over.
“I’d be extremely surprised if within five years every club in the country has not got the opportunity to deliver a safe standing area. It might be quite a bit sooner. The Football League have a mandate from their clubs. The Premier League is in a consultation period. If it becomes consensus and the EPL, EFL and Football Association ask the government to have a look at it with a united front, if every major stakeholder is saying they want this, the government would surely want to look seriously at it.”
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