At a time when the UK government’s basic humanity is being called into serious question, Sports Minister Tracey Crouch’s refusal to countenance “safe standing” at English Premier League (EPL) and Football League (EFL) Championship grounds is a relatively minor example of this deficiency.
This is, after all, a government that can tell people to “f**k off back to where you came from, half-a-century ago…when you were two.” So, they can easily remain “unconvinced” about changing a thirty-year-old policy their own advisors admit demonstrably needs changing.
The issue of safe standing at football re-entered public consciousness on 9th April when Premier-League-for-a-bit-anyway West Bromwich Albion had detailed, meticulously reasoned safe-standing proposals for their Hawthorns ground summarily dismissed in terms which suggested Crouch hadn’t even read them.
The governmental responded, via a Culture, Media and Sport Department (DCMS) statement: “We have no plans to change our position and introduce standing accommodation at grounds in the top two divisions covered by the all-seater policy. We will continue to monitor the issue of spectator accommodation and the use of safe standing where it is permitted.”
This response was surely depressingly familiar to safe-standing campaigners. In November 2016, the EPL took what West Ham co-chairman David Gold called “first steps towards safe standing,” discussing the issue at a regular meeting of its 20 shareholder clubs. Although no decision was contemplated, DCMS said: “Government has no plans to change its position and introduce standing accommodation at grounds covered by the all-seater requirement.”
In February 2017, the department’s ‘Sporting Future: A New Strategy for an Active Nation’ said: “Since rail-seating was installed at Celtic Park, there has been growing speculation that such accommodation could be introduced” to “grounds covered by the all-seater requirement.” And…guess what? “Government remains unconvinced by the case for re-introducing standing at football.” DCMS would “continue to monitor how it is working at Celtic.”
But safe standing has been “working at Celtic”, sometimes joyously, for two seasons. So, Crouch had to concoct other excuses, including…Brexit. No…really. “Even if the government became convinced of the merits…of so-called safe-standing areas,” wrote the Telegraph’s Ben Rumsby, “Britain’s decision to leave the EU means the status quo is likely to prevail in this parliament,” due to what Crouch called an “incredibly tight” legislative timetable.
And she even took the Conservative Party’s fall-back position on football and its supporters, airy dismissiveness. “This isn’t a massive issue in my inbox,” she told Rumsby. “There is a vocal minority calling for changes but there has been such a change of atmosphere at football stadia since the all-seater policy was put in place that people genuinely have mixed views and football fans have genuinely mixed views.”
Demonstrable horsesh*t, you might think (go on…I won’t mind). And while there is a historical context to Crouch’s stance, this context far from justifies that stance. The safe-standing debate has always been influenced, and often been governed, by what brought all-seater stadia legislation to football. Hillsborough. “No debate on safe standing can ignore the Hillsborough factor,” the BBC’s Matt Slater wrote in 2007. And six years later, he referenced the “centrality of Hillsborough” to the debate.
In 2000, Sports Minister, controversialist Labour MP Kate Hoey suggested the possibility of “safely-designed standing areas” at EPL grounds; the 1989 Football Spectators Act having proscribed standing accommodation in English club football’s top two tiers only.
Hillsborough Family Support Group (HFSG) chair Trevor Hicks encapsulated the outrage of those whose loved ones died just eleven years previously. He challenged Hoey “to look us in the eyes as she attempts to explain why she is fiddling with safety in response to a vociferous minority of fans. She may have forgotten the horror of Hillsborough, we have not and cannot.” Emotions which those who had not suffered them could hardly dispute.
With each safe-standing call came reactions confirming the “centrality of Hillsborough.” In 2012, HFSG chair, Margaret Aspinall cited “96 reasons” why “standing should never, ever come back,” denied “there is anything safe about standing” and was “insulted” safe-standing campaigning was “growing.” In 2016, group secretary Sue Roberts noted “a tendency to forget things in history,” calling standing “one step in the wrong direction, that will lead to another and another.” Germany’s top-flight clubs allow standing. But FA CEO Martin Glenn told BBC Sport: “We’ve had Hillsborough, they haven’t.”
And Steve Rotheram, Liverpool Walton MP, famously labelled safe-standing “an oxymoron.” Except it is oxymoronic at football only. At Bristol City’s redeveloped Ashton Gate ground, Bristol Rugby fans can stand, Bristol City fans cannot…unless the Robins are re-relegated to English club football’s third-tier, where standing is, somehow, safe.
Here, truths need telling. Standing at football did not cause Hillsborough. There is no debate on a return to Hillsborough’s pens, terracing or nine-and-a-half-foot fences. Margaret Aspinall’s denial of “anything safe about standing,” is incorrect.
When EPL communications director Dan Johnson cited a “softening” of attitudes towards standing at football, in 2016, this wasn’t an “insult” to the 96 who died at Hillsborough, or a “tendency to forget” the tragedy over time. It is an acknowledgment that, as Welsh Assembly Conservative leader Andrew R.T. Davies recently stated: “The all-seater policy demonises football supporters.” And a recognition of the contrast between West Brom’s thought-through proposals and Crouch’s thought-free rejection of them.
This has taken years. In October 2001, Hoey (ex-Sports Minister after her “safely-designated standing” comments) was among 13 MPs to sign a House of Commons motion making the same call, evidenced by studying how German fans stood “safely and legitimately without inconvenience to seated spectators.” And it covered other still-going issues/arguments. “Tens of thousands standing every week at rugby union, rugby league, horse-racing and pop concerts” and “problems at…Anfield and Old Trafford where many fans insist on standing in seated areas.”
The motion was “talked out” by parliament. But, undeterred, 73 MPs backed the “Football Spectators Bill” in January 2002 which, the BBC reported, “proposed giving the right to local authorities and clubs to decide if they would like safe-standing areas in their grounds.” Hansard, the formal record of parliamentary proceedings, doesn’t record the bill ‘proceeding’ far.
However, in 2007, over 100 MPs backed an ‘early-day motion’ (EDM) by Liberal Democrat Mike Hancock (yes, fans of MPs having affairs with suspected Russian spies, THAT one) which sought to “re-examine the case for limited sections of safe standing areas.” EDMs usually draw attention to issues rather than force parliamentary votes. But sufficient attention was drawn to this EDM to force one party leader to promise to “have a really good look at this” while stressing that “the priority” was “safety after the dreadful events at Hillsborough.” His name? David Cameron. Oh well…
By now, battle lines were drawn. Lines which have moved little-to-nowhere. Fan polls returned regular, massive majorities for safe standing, although media outlets often referenced ‘terraces,’ which fundamentally misled people about campaigns such as the Football Supporters’ Federation’s (FSF), ‘safe-standing’ campaign, which is transparently not a ‘bring back terracing’ campaign.
On 8th February 2007, in answer to a parliamentary question, Sports Minister Richard Caborn claimed there was “no new evidence that there is a single more effective way of achieving safety and public order than all-seater stadia.” This was offensively backed by Football Licensing Authority CEO John de Quidt, who refused to attend a parliamentary seminar on the issue (co-host: Hoey) because “there is a difference between entering into a debate and participating in a circus.” And Caborn added that “football authorities…have no wish to re-introduce standing areas in the top-two divisions.”
In 2012, the EPL refused to “(encourage) Government to change the law,” and attributed a “significantly improved” fan experience, “more diverse crowds, including more women and children,” better “crowd management” and Middle East peace to all-bums-on-seats stadia (well…maybe not that last one). And FSF safe-standing co-ordinator Peter Daykin wearily claimed that “both sides” were “entrenched.” Indeed, in 2014, the EPL were STILL not “encouraging Government to change the law.”
However, the EFL were not entrenched, with pressure increasing from their 72 clubs to at least trial safe-standing proposals. Not least because, at any one time, two-thirds of its membership were allowed standing areas, even plain old-fashioned terracing, in Leagues One and Two, regardless of crowd-size.
In February 2013, 21 Championship club CEOs passed a motion urging the EFL to “encourage and support the instigation of a rail-seat/safe-standing trial period at any League club,” though this was again misinterpreted as “pressure to change law so that terraces can return” (by the Independent). And at the EFL’s June AGM, over two-thirds of club chiefs voted to instruct their board to “explore safe-standing trials,” with an un-named CEO declaring this “the will of the people.”
With implacable opposition from the ‘key’ organisations, the government and the EPL (not necessarily in that order), this ‘exploration’ was always going to take time. It wasn’t until last June that League One Shrewsbury Town applied to install ‘rail-seating’ at their romantically-named Montgomery Waters Meadow stadium, a continuing process which required, and received, £65,000 ‘crowdfunding.’
But, perhaps belying his past associations with one Kenneth Bates esq, EFL CEO Steve Harvey has been an articulate high-profile safe-standing advocate. After Shrewsbury’s crowd-funding success, Harvey re-affirmed the league’s commitment to “seeking a change in the law” to give all EFL clubs “the same opportunity to install standing accommodation should they wish.” And his 16th April letter to Crouch was a near-unanswerable summary of the arguments (which Crouch, as I type, hasn’t answered).
EPL clubs have followed suit. Ish. This has often been mere talk, Slater reporting in 2013 that while “19 of 20 EPL clubs said they would like to talk about a return to standing, none has raised it at an EPL shareholders meeting.” EPL supporters, Liverpool’s included, have overwhelmingly backed safe-standing in regular polls, meeting the oft-quoted 2011 “standard government reply” to campaigners: “Before any change in legislation there would have to be a very clear demand.”
Safe-standing campaigners were boosted by Glasgow City Council’s acceptance of Celtic’s proposals to install 2,900 rail-seats at 60,000-capacity Celtic Park. And there have been recent ‘non-entrenchments’ of past opposition; from the FLA’s successor body, the Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA), and, most notably, from some Hillsborough families’ representatives.
Celtic Park is now the venue of choice for proper safe-standing research. Last September, SGSA chief inspector Ken Scott admitted in a speech on the widespread, problematic practice of ‘persistent standing’ in seated areas, that it was “safer” to “stand behind a barrier” than “behind a seat.” And last July, after meeting influential Liverpool fans’ group, ‘Spirit of Shankly,’ Louise Brookes, whose brother died at Hillsborough, told the Daily Mail: “I feel very strongly about bringing rail seating in. I don’t believe for a moment that standing killed our 96.”
Yet the Government remains ideologically blinkered. Trevor Hicks referenced “a vociferous minority of fans” campaigning for standing at football in 2000. But Crouch’s reference to “a vocal minority calling for changes” was an insidious lie, not rebutted by whatever weird question revealed majority support for “standing areas in principle” but “only 5%” support for standing “for an entire match.” This from an unpublished, previously unheralded, poll which even supposed respondents struggled to recall. (Celtic Park’s rail-seating accommodates about 4.8% of its capacity. BTW).
Campaigning efforts have thus been reinvigorated. Ipswich Town fan Owen Riches’ January petition to the government to “Allow Premier League and Championship football clubs to introduce safe standing” recently flew past the 10,000 signatures required to prompt a government response. This will likely be the stock government response. However, the petition would be “considered for debate in parliament” if 100,000 sign it. Each subsequent signature further discredit’s Couch’s “vocal minority” claim. As I type, the signature count is 84,615.
However, the BBC’s Richard Conway warned that “the full backing of their Safety Advisory Group with representatives from police, fire, ambulance services and the local authority,” didn’t help West Brom. “The English game,” Conway added, “needs to combine with one voice…and present a united position to the government before anything changes.” Fat chance of that just now. Yet Celtic’s state-of-the-art arrangements were rejected by Glasgow’s City Council in 2014, with Police Scotland “not convinced by safe-standing” and unwilling to “support its introduction.” Persistence can beat resistance, as the saying goes.
Sadly, facts are sideshows in modern political debate. In researching this article, I expected to encounter something resembling a court judgment, explaining, even…gasp…justifying, Crouch’s decision. After all, Rumsby reported last October that “she was examining the effect…of rail-seating at Celtic and would ‘talk to all the relevant people probably towards the end of this season’.”
But rather than being “unconvinced,” the government seems unwilling to BE convinced. Last week, the Guardian’s Daniel Taylor angrily summarised “how crackers it all is,” reporting that “the Football Safety Officers’ Association” was “asking why ‘government is choosing to ignore what may prove to be a safer alternative.’ The clue with safe standing is in the name: it’s safe.”
Alongside some current scandals caused by this government’s humanity deficit, refusing safe-standing at football is borderline-trivial. And it isn’t a party-political issue…Riches himself is a Conservative. But Crouch precisely personifies this government’s arrogant dismissiveness and ignorance when it comes to football and its supporters. And no-one, however appalled, should be surprised.
You can link to Owen Riches’ petition by clicking here. The closing date for signatures is June 8th. But you’re not busy just now. So, please pop over there and get signing…and sharing. You KNOW you want to. The signature count is now 84,639… no…wait… 84,641… hang on… 84,649 …you get the message.