With more and more new build stadiums around the world adopting safe standing will England and Wales be left behind? Safe Standing Roadshow's Jon Darch looks at the issue...
The recent announcement by Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven that they are to fit rail seats to create a safe standing area at the Philips Stadion this summer is just the latest in a succession of similar reports from all over the world.
From Holland to Scotland, Austria to Australia, Orlando City to Cardiff Bay, the direction of travel is all in one direction: away from all-seater stadia and towards grounds offering a choice of seated or purpose-built standing accommodation.
In many cases, the motivation for this is enhanced spectator safety. “We want to ensure that the fans who are most likely to keep standing throughout matches are accommodated in a better, safer way,” said PSV’s Marc van de Laar last week. “One of our key motivations for this stadium upgrade is spectator safety.”
The champions of Holland are not the only ones to think this way. So do the champions of Scotland. Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell said very much the same when announcing last year that they too would be installing rail seats this summer.
“The introduction of rail seating at Celtic Park represents an investment in spectator safety," Lawwell said. "Across football globally, the reality is that some supporters are choosing to stand at matches.
"This is something we must accept and manage and also understand the positive effect which these areas have on atmosphere at matches.
"Celtic’s primary objective will always be the safety and comfort of its supporters – this new system will now allow fans to stand safely at matches.”
Nor is this recognition that there are better ways to accommodate standing fans than in areas fitted with conventional low-backed seats unique to Scotland or Holland.
Only a couple of weeks ago news also emerged from Austria that SK Sturm Graz is to convert the North Stand of its all-seater stadium into a safe standing area this summer. In the process, they will be increasing the capacity of the stand by over 50% for domestic matches, while retaining the flexibility to revert to their current capacity and all-seater configuration for European games.
Meanwhile, up the road in Bavaria, the Allianz Arena, home of perennial German champions Bayern Munich, which opened in 2005 with 66,000 seats and no dedicated standing area, is also no longer an all-seater stadium.
On successive occasions over the intervening years, the club has responded to supporter feedback and removed whole blocks of seating, most recently in summer 2014 when they converted the entire lower tier of the South Stand into a standing area for over 9,000 fans. In total over the years, the addition of standing has seen the ground’s capacity for domestic games increase to 75,000.
In another major capital, Moscow, fans of CSKA will also soon have a dedicated standing area. Thousands of rail seats are currently being installed in their new stadium, due to open later this year.
The New World
Neither is this solely a northern hemisphere trend. In Australia, Western Sydney Wanderers are hoping that a new stadium they are to share from 2019 with rugby league side Parramatta Eels will also include a safe standing area.
In their submission to the New South Wales authorities responsible for the new build, they have requested the installation of 1,000 rail seats to enable what they call their ‘active supporters’ to stand at their games in a dedicated area designed for the purpose.
Ten days or so ago, NSW’s Minister of Sport Stuart Ayres indicated it was likely that this will happen. “We'll be looking to accommodate all different types of fan usage in the design the best way we can,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Safe standing is also a growing trend in Major League Soccer in the United States. Orlando City will open their new ‘soccer-specific’ stadium later this year with what they claim is “North America's only safe-standing supporter section”.
Coming hot on their heels, however, are Minnesota United, reported to be doing likewise at their new stadium set to open in 2018. Meanwhile, Manchester City’s sister club New York City FC asked fans in a survey in February if they would like a safe standing area included in their proposed new stadium’s design. In California, the San Jose Earthquakes also built a simple standing area into their new Avaya Stadium, opened last year.
England, Scotland and Wales
The rest of the world is thus pressing ahead with safe standing. Including, as mentioned above, in Scotland, where the legislation that requires some 70 clubs in England and Wales to provide only seated accommodation does not apply.
South of the border, however, all that clubs can do for now is plan ahead for a change in the rules: for the day when the authorities do allow them to provide their standing fans with accommodation that is fit for purpose.
Several have already made such plans. In December, Spurs, for example, became the first Premier League club to have planning permission granted for a new stadium with specific provision made in its design for the creation of a safe standing area fitted with rail seats (including built-in scope for an increase in capacity).
Brentford, long-time supporters of safe standing, also have provision for rail seating built into the design of their new ground at Lionel Road. Chelsea fans too report that members of the Stamford Bridge redevelopment team told them that the architects have designed the lower tiers at each end of the remodelled stadium with safe standing in mind. Other English clubs working on new stadia or ground redevelopments have done likewise, though not yet put that information into the public domain. Indeed the operators of some of the biggest stadia in the land are privately extremely keen to introduce safe standing at their facilities. Until the rules change, though, their hands are tied.
However, the wait for common sense to prevail and the rules on standing at football in England and Wales to come into line with Scotland, Northern Ireland and most of the rest of the world may soon be over.
There is already talk in Wales of a pilot there, with the Assembly voting overwhelmingly in support of running one and the leader of the Welsh Conservatives formally calling earlier in the year for responsibility for sports ground safety to be devolved to Cardiff Bay to enable that to be done.
There have also been signs in Westminster of a willingness to consider change, with both the ‘Sporting Future’ strategy document in December and Sports Minister Tracey Crouch in a written parliamentary answer in January stating that the government would monitor the introduction of safe standing at Celtic and in due course “reassess” its position.
Until then, supporters of the 70-odd clubs in England and Wales subject to this now outdated legislation banning the provision of any form of standing accommodation can only look on enviously as fans in Eindhoven, Glasgow, Sydney, Moscow, Orlando and elsewhere are provided with what they’re not allowed to have: modern, dedicated, fit-for-purpose areas for safe standing.
Hopefully the day when England and Wales catch up is not too far away!
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Image via Orlando