Premier League clubs to start safe-standing talks

Joe Williams

Premier League clubs will formally discuss the possible return of standing areas within stadia at a meeting in London next Thursday.

This will be the first time so-called safe-standing has been on the agenda of a Premier League shareholders’ meeting since all-seater grounds were made compulsory in 1994.

That move was a recommendation in Lord Justice Taylor’s landmark report into the 1989 Hillsborough disaster that left 96 Liverpool fans dead, although he never actually blamed standing for the tragedy.

Fans groups, crowd-safety experts and politicians have campaigned to have the ban on standing areas overturned for 20 years but have met only strong resistance from the Premier League.

That may be about to change, though, as the top flight’s executive chairman Richard Scudamore now accepts the calls to explore safe-standing can no longer be ignored.

Speaking to Sky Sports News, Scudamore said: “We’re not immune to the fact that this is a topic and therefore it is in discussion with our clubs.

“They are all looking at the issue and at some point it will come around our table and we will see if there’s a point at which we might open up discussions with government to see what their view is on it.

“It’s very much individual clubs sensing for themselves where they are with it and we may or may not facilitate that discussion in the weeks and months to come.”

Scudamore, who have never hidden his personal opposition to a reversal of the all-seater requirement, added that this would require a change in the law and the government has so far shown no inclination to change it.

There are others, however, who believe legislation would not be needed as the law does not say football fans must use the seats – that is a matter for the Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA) that oversees each club’s compliance with its ground regulations.

This school of thought believes the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport could just direct the SGSA to lift the all-seat requirement, as has always been the case in Leagues One and Two, not to mention rugby league and rugby union.

Either way, it is undeniable that the once fringe calls for a return to standing areas in football grounds have now become mainstream and increasingly loud.

The Football Supporters’ Federation has been campaigning for it since 2002, with survey after survey showing that it had the overwhelming backing of fans, and in 2010 the Liberal Democrats put it in their manifesto.

A year later, the Scottish Professional Football League dropped its all-seater requirement and in 2013 English Football League clubs voted for trials of the rail seats that are so popular in Germany and Scandinavia.

These are seats that can be flipped up and locked in place, providing space to stand behind a waist-high rail that runs along the back of the row in front. Every “seat” is linked to a ticket number and there is no overall increase in capacity.

Celtic became the first big British club to try rail seats when they opened a 2,900-capacity section this season. A delegation from Manchester United visited Celtic Park to look at the rail seating last month and several other Premier League clubs, under pressure from their fans, are known to be very interested in the Scottish champions’ experiment.

In many ways, it is a surprise it has taken this long for the clubs, who are all equal shareholders in the Premier League, to properly discuss their views on the matter together. A Mail on Sunday survey of the 20 top-flight clubs in 2013 found that 19 of them were either in favour of safe-standing pilots or were open to the idea of them, providing there was government support.

The exception was Liverpool, for entirely understandable reasons, but even there the debate is starting to move. Earlier this month, the influential Spirit of Shankly fans group announced a wide-ranging consultation process, with a vote on a formal position on the issue next summer.