Return of safe standing set for further delays

The potential return of safe standing in the English Premier League and Championship is set to be delayed until at least the 2020-21 season after a new report called for fresh research into the matter.

The UK government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has released the results of a review into evidence relating to the all-seater policy and any gaps that exist in that data. In the summer of 2018, the former Minister for Sport and Civil Society, Tracey Crouch, commissioned the analysis, which was conducted by CFE Research.

CFE’s analysis of evidence examined existing data and research relating to football matches taking place at all tiers of competition under the all-seater policy and other UK and international jurisdictions. It analysed persistent standing contrary to current policy, and associated safety and injury risk.

The study also tackled the evolution in stadium design, seating technology and modern crowd management approaches, in particular the introduction of rail seating and other new seating products such as seats with independent barriers. It also assessed the permanent application of the policy once a stadium is brought in scope.

However, the report has found “significant gaps in the current understanding of standing at football”. It stated: “As such there is a strong argument for taking steps to advance knowledge of this issue. This is a complex subject which evokes strong feelings across the football sector and there is significant scope for further research to build a more robust evidence base.”

A DCMS spokesperson told the Daily Mail newspaper: “Over a million people watch live football at a ground every week and their safety is paramount. The independent review on standing at football found that more evidence is clearly needed before any change to the current all-seater policy can be properly considered. The Sports Grounds Safety Authority will be gathering this evidence over the course of the football season. Their report will be published next year.”

The SGSA added in a statement: “The SGSA has commissioned new independent research on the nature and scale of standing at football, associated safety risks and how to mitigate them. The research will take place over the 2019-20 season.  The results will be published next summer and provided to DCMS to help inform Government’s consideration of the all-seater policy.”

Standing has been outlawed in the top two leagues of English football since the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, which claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool fans. However, there has been increasing efforts to return safe standing, which has received provisional support from the Football Association (FA), Premier League and English Football League (EFL), as well as from fan groups.

Wolverhampton Wanderers have this season become the first Premier League club to install seats incorporating barriers in an existing stadium. All seats in the Sir Jack Hayward Stand at Molineux (pictured) have been replaced by a new barrier seating solution. Furthermore, all seats in the stadium’s Stan Cullis quadrant have been fitted with an independent barrier. Both options fully comply with the SGSA’s most recent guidance.

The latest edition of the SGSA’s Green Guide contains guidelines on the use of ‘seats incorporating barriers’ and ‘seats with independent barriers’. It has been confirmed by the SGSA that, provided certain strict conditions are met, both independent barriers and seats incorporating barriers can be licensed as compliant with the government’s all-seater policy.

The Sir Jack Hayward Stand, otherwise known as the South Bank, houses the club’s most vocal fans, the majority of whom choose to stand, rather than sit, at games. Tottenham Hotspur fitted rail seating at its recently-opened new stadium, while it emerged last month that Manchester United will explore the possibility of introducing rail seating at Old Trafford.

The Mail said the latest DCMS review means that any change in the law governing standing at football matches is now unlikely to happen until 2021 at the earliest, and would not be brought in midway through a season.

It added that over the course of this season, researchers will visit a range of grounds in England and Wales which offer different ‘spectator accommodation’, as well as Scottish Premiership club Celtic, which has rail seating installed at Celtic Park, along with German Bundesliga clubs that offer safe standing.

Commenting on the latest news, an EFL spokesman said: “The EFL’s Stand up for Choice campaign in 2018 illustrated clear evidence of strong support for a change to the all-seater policy amongst EFL clubs and their supporters.

“Thousands of those supporters stand, safely, to watch football every week and we believe that all our clubs should have the option to offer standing accommodation regardless of what division they are competing in. We therefore welcome the commitment being made to further research.

“The EFL remains in dialogue with the Government and relevant stakeholders on this matter and we look forward to evidence-based results being used to determine future policy on standing at football stadia.”