FSF takes part in Sports Ministers' debate

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BBC Radio Five Live last night (Thurs 25/3/10) held its Sports Ministers’ Special debate – a Question Time-style show with a panel made up of Labour’s Gerry Sutcliffe MP (the current sports minister) along with his “shadows”  Hugh Robertson MP from the Conservatives and Don Foster MP of the Liberal Democrats. The FSF was represented in the audience by our Chair Malcolm Clarke (also the supporter representative on the FA Council), Policy Director Steve Powell, and Jo Collins, Acting Chair of Pompey Supporters’ Trust.

This was, to coin a phrase, the politicians’ opportunity to win the hearts and minds of sports fans. The first half hour or so of the broadcast, which you can find at the above link, is about football (with an intervention by Jo), before it moves on to other sports and picks football back up one hour and 20 minutes in where the FSF’s Malcolm and Steve come in. Jo also has her say again.

We obviously can’t cover all the subjects touched upon but there were some hugely important issues covered and one particularly jaw-dropping, totally incorrect statement by Sports Minister Gerry Sutcliffe on standing areas towards the last few minutes.

“As someone who was at the Valley Parade disaster in 1985 I don’t want to go back old stadiums,” said Sutcliffe in an attempt to discredit safe standing. He is so wrong it’s embarrassing. The disaster at Bradford City, when a fire tragically killed 56 people, took place in a seated area.

It shows either Sutcliffe’s ignorance of the issue or was a calculated attempt to influence the debate by summoning up the ghost of past disasters. Neither possiblity reflects at all well on Sutcliffe.

Sutcliffe then backtracked and suggested that it’s “fine for new stadia” which is a new departure from those in power and something we’ll be following up. But if that’s the case, why is it not acceptable for old stadiums to be converted? If, say, Roman Abramovich wished to spend some of his millions updating Stamford Bridge to incorporate safe standing areas why should the Government prevent him from doing so? The Government’s role should be to ensure safety, not tell football clubs how to spend their money.

After all, if they’re now happy for safe standing to be introduced into new grounds there’s no reason not to covert old ones if the funds and will is there. It’s no longer a safety argument but an economic one, Sutcliffe has admitted as much.

Now all that needs changing is the regulations barring safe standing areas in the top two divisions in England & Wales.

If you are new to the FSF it’s worth knowing we’ve long campaigned for the introduction of safe standing areas into the Premier League and Football League Championship. Independent opinion surveys consistently show that nine out of every ten fans want the choice to sit or stand in safety as they prefer. It would avoid those who wish to stand blocking the views of those who choose to sit, and the lack of standing areas needlessly causes antagonism between fans and stewards. The authorities might argue against safe standing but all the evidence shows they are wrong, see the FSF’s Case for Safe Standing at major football stadia in England and Wales for much, much more on that.

Safe standing works brilliantly in Germany. A serious re-examination of this issue was recommended by the Independent Football Commission in 2007. The safe standing areas we’re talking about are nothing like the massive terraces that many will recall. We’re talking modern crowd control techniques and innovative design. Bars act as handrails for standing and seats can be flipped down for European competition when it is a requirement.

Credit to the Liberal Democrats who openly back safe standing too – they know it can be done.

Of course the panel were also quizzed on a far wider range of topics than just safe standing. With FA Chief Executive Ian Watmore announcing his resignation this week there was an initial focus around governance and leadership and the Lib Dem’s Don Foster struck the first blow for supporters.

Foster stated his party’s aim to back the FA as a strong regulator and proposing fans’ representation on both the FA Board and Council. At present the FSF has one place on the FA Council which is made up of around 170 people.

He also backed a much stronger fit and proper person test, arguing that owners must show their hand when it comes to business models and “ludicrous” leveraged buyouts should be prevented via an independent FA License. Robertson seconded this and suggested the game was “on the edge…in the last chance saloon” with regards to debt and financial transparency. Both Shadow Ministers seem to realise fans are sick with the contempt that some of the football industry treats them with.

Unfortunately Sutcliffe entirely missed his chance to stand shoulder to shoulder with fans. Despite being a Manchester United fan and Sports Minister in a Government whose own leader, Gordon Brown, had said club debts were “too high” he scored a definite own goal by refusing to back the fans’ anti-Glazer Green and Gold campaign.

“On this occasion I’ll keep out of that issue,” said Sutcliffe as it was pointed out he could win a lot of fans by backing the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust and co. “I’d probably lose a loft of fans so I’ll be neutral on that.” In giving such a professional politician’s answer, trying to avoid offending anyone by saying nothing in effect, Sutcliffe has actually pleased no one. If anything he’ll have alienated many and it shows a basic failure in his understanding of fans’ feeling – shocking from a self-proclaimed United supporter.

How can you be neutral on this issue? Here at FSF Towers we say, “he who sits on the fence gets splinters in their rear-end.” To use another metaphor standing in the middle of the road is an excellent place to get run over by traffic travelling in both directions.

There was also some talk about John Terry-gate which, frankly, even bores us now. Is anyone, except the media and his wife, still interested in John Terry’s inability to keep his pants on?

All in all an interesting show and a pretty useful insight into where the politicians are at.

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