Is it safe to stand? ‘Yes,’ says Jon Darch, a campaigner at football grounds across England for the Safe Standing Roadshow. ‘Yes,’ say Celtic, whose new rail seating has revived Celtic Park. ‘Yes please,’ says Roger Groves of the Shrewsbury Town Supporters’ Parliament, behind England’s first safe-standing area being introduced next season. Tony Dawber takes his place on the terraces.
Shrewsbury Town may not always invite comparisons with Borussia Dortmund but New Meadow might soon have its own version of the famed Yellow Wall.
Safe standing has long been a key differential between the German game and football in Britain.
After the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, terracing was banned in England’s main two divisions and Scotland’s top flight. The measures saw a wave of all-seater stadiums built across the country.
Lower down the league, old-style standing areas remained and is currently found at 21 clubs in England.
Polls and fan forums have long called for a rethink on the matter. In the meantime, a new type of rail seating used in Germany has passed rigorous safety tests.
So, why Shrewsbury?
‘Initially it was a supporter-led move,’ explains Roger Groves, a lifelong Shrews fan and joint chairman of the STFC Supporters’ Parliament.
With legislation changes allowing clubs to look into safe-standing areas, Groves contacted the Safe Standing Roadshow group, relentless campaigners for the move.
‘Then we approached the football club,’ says Groves. ‘We have worked in partnership with them, looking at the feasibility of bringing safe standing to Shrewsbury.’
According to Groves, feedback from supporters has been extremely positive, with 90 per cent in favour of the move in a recent survey.
Roadshow representative Jon Darch has received similar reactions across the country. ‘I’ve set up the roadshow over 70 times since its first outing at Wolves in 2011,’ he says. ‘The response everywhere has been extremely positive.’
Darch points out that currently widespread low-backed seating can prove dangerous in areas where fans clearly stand in any case. ‘Once people have the opportunity to stand behind one of the robust rail seats, they quickly realise that we’re not talking about a return to the crumbling terraces of old,’ he explains. ‘Rail seating is, in fact, a much safer form of spectator accommodation.’
Clearly though, safe standing is still a sensitive issue, particularly among Liverpool supporters.
Darch argues that many Reds fans like to stand, particularly at away games. Leading Liverpool podcast and fanzine The Anfield Wrap recently found an overwhelming number of their followers back the scheme.
‘Polls such as the one run by TAW reinforce the overall impression with actual numbers,’ says Darch. ‘Should members of Liverpool supporters’ union the Spirit of Shankly decide in due course that their formal position on rail seating should be supportive, that would be significant indeed.’
In Scotland, the roaring success of Celtic’s recently introduced safe-standing section has sparked the stadium into life. ‘This has been a major turning point in our campaign,’ agrees Darch. ‘For the first time, club executives from England and Wales have been able to go and look at a rail-seating installation without having to travel to Europe.
‘By all accounts, they’ve gone up in large numbers and all been impressed. That has undoubtedly played a big part in the Premier League now seriously looking into safe standing. Recently it asked clubs if they would be prepared to let their ground be used as a trial site.’
Back in Shrewsbury, a specific area has already been earmarked for safe standing by the end of 2017-18, a first for English professional football.
‘A vibrant atmosphere is key at any football club,’ says Roger Groves. ‘We want to offer the manager and team everything we can. We have identified the South Stand behind one goal for safe standing. We’ve had sightline tests carried out and, realistically, this is the only place to install it.
Manchester architects AFL, responsible for work at 20-plus prestigious stadiums from Belle Vue to Baghdad, have been the team involved.
‘We proposed to use the back rows across the whole of the stand for a standing capacity of 555, says Groves. ‘We could do more but we want to ensure this is successful, and within a cost that we believe we can create funding for.’
The club still has a few hurdles to clear before final approval from the Football League. And the Premier League still needs to be convinced.
‘The hope now,’ says Darch, ‘is that the Premier League executive, mandated by its clubs, will enter into dialogue with the Government to move towards such an introduction preceded, perhaps, by trials.
‘The Football League has long been mandated by its clubs to do this. The FA is understood to be supportive of the concept as well. Hopefully we are now close to a position where the leagues and the FA can send a common message to Westminster, and where politicians will respond in a positive manner.
‘After all, why would they want to deny the clubs the opportunity to make their grounds safer?’