It was only a tiny step forward, but those that have been campaigning for the return of terraces in the form of safe standing had a rare reason to be cheerful yesterday with an announcement from north of the border, that the Scottish Premier League is to trial a pilot that may see the return of standing at matches in the near future.
That this announcement should be popular is hardly surprising. The argument in favour of the introduction is a far more sophisticated one than many give it credit for being, but to what extent is such an announcement merely an exercise in public relations from a league that is viewed with as much – perhaps even more – distrust by the supporters of its clubs as the English Premier League is to its south?
The announcement yesterday from Neil Doncaster, the Chief Executive of the Scottish Premier League, certainly seems to have caught a few by surprise. Under the new scheme, clubs taking part in the SPL will have to have a minimum of 6,000 covered seats, but can apply for the any capacity over this to be in the form of safe standing, as is used in Germany. Ground grading issues between the Scottish Football League and the SPL have long been a thorn in the side of Scotland’s middle-ranking clubs, to the extent that the minimum stadium capacity for entrance into to SPL had to be cut from 10,000 to a more manageable 6,000 during the 2004/05 season, and the reaction from clubs seems to have been favourable so far, with Aberdeen confirming that they hope to introduce a safe standing area at their new stadium, which is due to open in 2013, and only two out of twelve SPL clubs confirming that they will not be doing so, on account of the costs involved and the design of their existing stadia.
It seems unlikely that safe standing areas will be considerably cheaper than many other parts of grounds, initially at least. The cost of conversion seems unlikely to be inexpensive – the ‘Rail’ system, in which a safety barrier and a seat on every row can be locked for SPL games and unfolded for other competitions, is likely to be a popular option for interested clubs – and, it should be pointed out, it is considerably more important to get these conversions done right rather than merely as cheaply as possible. Yet this is progress, of sorts. The laws enacted after Hillsborough never applied to Scottish football clubs, who adopted the recommendations of The Taylor Report voluntarily in 1994. If this announcement does signal a sea change in the culture surrounding the debate over safe standing – and if it does, then the Football Supporters Federation’s lengthy campaign on the matter can be deemed to be having some effect – then the door might just be pushed open for it to spread to England as well.
Of course, the critical difference between the campaigning on this matter in England and Scotland is a legislative one. Since The Taylor Report never became law in Scotland the reintroduction of standing areas in Scottish football was never any more than a matter of persuading the SPL and the clubs of its merits. In England and Wales, there is an extra hurdle to jump in the form of persuading parliament that the reintroduction of safe standing makes perfect sense. At the moment, the clubs of the Premier League use the legislation as a fig leaf for a lack of interest in improving the match day experience for supporters itself – “The bottom line is that it is illegal under the legislation that was brought in after Hillsborough. We can’t have standing in the Premier League and the Championship and it’s not a situation we would like to see change”, was the sniffy reaction of the Premier League’s spokesman Dan Johnson on the subject yesterday.
In other words, it will require a cultural change as much as anything else in order to try and force the issue towards the top of the agenda in England. We know that English football – or, at least, the clubs that were, in the immediate aftermath of the issuance of The Taylor Report – picked and chose the aspects of it that they wished to adopt, and all-seater stadia, with its aspirations towards gentrification and, of course, considerably higher ticket prices was one that the nascent Premier League was keen on. In the rush towards football’s brave new world, however, something of our culture was lost and this has become apparent in several different ways, not least of which has been a notable diminishment of the atmosphere at matches themselves. With gaps also starting to appear in the seats themselves, it wouldmake common sense for the Premier League to embrace something which may even increase match-day revenues and reduce its clubs’ dependence upon television money. Persuading this organisation that a broader view of the benefits of safe standing might well benefit its members in the long term, however, will not necessarily be easy.
Safe standing in Germany is successful, popular and lucrative, but the model of football which has made the Bundesliga the league with the highest attendances in Europe, with reasonable ticket prices, a degree of competition which puts that of England to shame and has supported the revitalisation of the national team isn’t something that seems to interest the Premier League. Perhaps a successful pilot scheme in Scotland might make a difference towards changing attitudes in England, but it is clear that there are both legislative and attitudinal issues that have to be overcome if safe standing is ever to be introduced in this country. A little common sense in Scotland, though, has been a start.
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