The prospect of safe standing areas returning to stadia across English football has taken another step forward after the Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA) today (Friday) said initial research has indicated that the installation of such solutions has had a “positive impact” on spectator safety.

At the start of the 2019-20 season, the SGSA commissioned independent research on the safe management of standing at football. The SGSA today published the emerging findings of the research, which could ultimately lead to the official return of standings at grounds in the Premier League and Championship.

In today’s report, the SGSA noted that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to the safe management of standing. However, it added: “Research so far suggests that, overall, installing barriers (or safety bars) has had a positive impact on spectator safety, particularly in mitigating the risk of crowd collapse.

“Celebrations are more orderly with limited opportunity for forward or backwards movement compared to observations in seated areas. Further, safety staff feel that the introduction of barriers has not encouraged standing where supporters previously sat. Other positive impacts include orderly egress, a reduction in the number of supporters leaning on/over perimeter fencing and a decline in conflict that is triggered by persistent standing.”

However, the SGSA said the risk of injury caused by climbing on infrastructure remains as supporters can climb on unlocked seats, seat backs and barriers. It also noted that areas for away fans remain a challenge to manage for some matches.

The report said: “Persistent standing in away areas is extensive and migration within stands is more prevalent than in home areas. The installation of barriers as a strategy to enhance the safety of fans should not therefore focus solely on home areas, and management strategies specifically for away supporters are required.”

Commenting on the findings, Martyn Henderson, chief executive of the SGSA, said: “Our research is providing new insights into the positive impact that installing seats with barriers can have on crowd safety. The research is ongoing and we will publish the final report at the end of season. In the meantime, we will work closely with the Government on the implementation of its manifesto commitment to introduce safe standing.”

The SGSA’s research has been conducted after it emerged in October that the potential return of safe standing was set to be delayed until at least the 2020-21 season following a new report calling for fresh research into the matter.

The UK government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) 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.

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 this season became the first Premier League club to install seats incorporating barriers in an existing stadium. All seats in the Sir Jack Hayward Stand at Molineux 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 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 in September that Manchester United will explore the possibility of introducing rail seating at Old Trafford.

The Guardian newspaper reported that the SGSA has studied behaviour at Celtic Park, home of Scottish Premiership club Celtic, and German Bundesliga team Borussia Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park, as well as at English clubs Shrewsbury Town, Wycombe Wanderers and Oxford United, which are trialling the technology. Standing is still possible at many grounds in Leagues One and Two, where traditional terracing remains.

Last year’s general election saw every political party back safe standing in their manifestos. Responding to the SGSA’s latest findings, Sports Minister Nigel Adams said: “As we made clear in our election manifesto, we will work with fans and clubs towards introducing safe standing at football grounds.

“However, it is imperative that football remains as safe as it has become over the past 25 years. Robust evidence that this change will provide equivalent or improved safety for supporters, will be absolutely paramount to this process.

“There is more work that needs to be done. The SGSA is continuing to gather evidence over the course of this season, and I have asked them to work with the football authorities to consider next steps as we work with clubs and fans to introduce safe standing.”

Image: Shrewsbury Town FC