One debate within football which has started to pick up pace over the last few months or so has been that concerning the return of safe standing to top level matches in England. Several clubs have already expressed an interest in trialling safe standing areas in grounds, and this week has, perhaps, seen a story emerge from Sunderland which demonstrates why it would be beneficial for such a trial to begin as soon as possible. This week, Sunderland AFC deactivated the season tickets of thirty-eight supporters for “persistent standing” at the Stadium of Light, and have followed this low-tolerance approach by taping up the vacant seats of those that will no longer be attending matches there with a warning which stated, “This season card has been deactivated due to persistent standing.” If this threat were any more thinly veiled, it would be naked.

The big question for Sunderland supporters is that of what happens next. It’s widely recognised that a large proportion of the club’s support does stand throughout matches, and this in itself is not against the law. As the Football Supporters Federation confirms on its guide to standing at matches, “It is widely believed that this practice is illegal. This is not the case, even within Premier League and Championship grounds. The law only provides that these clubs should provide seats for all supporters, not that supporters must sit on them.” This is in contradiction of a statement issued by the club, through its chief executive Margaret Byrne, in response to widespread criticism from supporters over this hard-nosed attitude. In it, Byrne stated that, “Persistent standing in all-seater stadia is simply not allowed – this isn’t a Sunderland Football Club rule, it’s a legal obligation that all clubs have to adhere to in the interests of the safety of all supporters, which is always our primary concern”, and that, “certain sections of the media have shown a clear lack of understanding of the law in their reporting of the matter.”

Byrne also invoked Hillsborough as a reason for so enthusiastically pursuing a no standing policy at matches – “The tragedy at Hillsborough, which led to the loss of the lives of 96 football fans, galvanised a change in football legislation through the implementation of the findings of the Taylor Report” – is fundamentally fallacious. No-one died at Hillsborough because they were standing up. People died at Hillsborough because the pens that they were standing in were death traps, because those pens were surrounded by fences which put containment before safety and because a ground with no safety licence contained crush barriers that were rotting from the inside. To use this as an explanation for banning supporters – with no prior warning – for standing at matches is faintly absurd and somewhat insulting to the intelligence of the very supporters that the club sought to pacify with that very statement.

What has become clear over the last few days has been that this story has become bigger than it needed to be. Ultimately, though, there is a case that can be made in the defence of Sunderland’s actions. There are terms and conditions attached to buying a ticket or a season ticket at the ground which are related to the license under which the club is allowed to operate its stadium, and the ham-fisted wording of its statement doesn’t diminish the argument that the club has to fulfill certain obligations and that these seem to be particularly closely monitored at the Stadium of Light than at some other grounds. Sunderland AFC is unable to fill its ground for all bar the biggest matches, and the question of whether they could possibly want to alienate the season ticket holders that the club currently has should be a straightforward one. With each season ticket that isn’t renewed at the end of the season costing the club between £425 and £525 (based on this season’s prices), the club surely can’t afford to lose season ticket holders.

In a broader sense, though, this story illuminates the importance of maintaining pressure on the safe standing debate. Football supporters do not like being told to “sit down and shut up”, and safe standing offers a route away from the potential conflict that a hardening of attitudes towards those that do stand persistently at matches. It would be encouraging to see Sunderland AFC take something from what has likely been a somewhat chastening few days for the club – a more positive attitude towards the introduction of the safe standing areas at matches that a hefty proportion of their supporters clearly wish to see. Between standing in seated areas and safe standing areas, most supporters would probably prefer to stand in safe standing areas and if we had to look at both and assess which is safer, then standing in specially designed areas is surely safer than in areas that are not designed for this purpose in the first place.

All the while, though, the disenchantment with modern football continues to grow. How many Sunderland supporters might drift away from the game at the end of this season, angered at the cost of it all, sick of being told what they can and can’t do, and exhausted by the cost of it all? And at how many other clubs might this scenario be repeated? This questions may come to be more important than we could ever appreciate now over the next ten years or so, and how clubs, authorities and perhaps even the government react to these questions will come to define what sort of game and culture we have in ten years time or so. It is, perhaps, time for more clubs to change their tack on this subject from being “seating versus persistent standing” to being “seating and safe standing.”

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