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Premier League ‘will have safe standing by summer 2018’

February 15, 2017 in News & Features

Safe standing areas could be installed at Premier League grounds as early as next summer, despite ongoing government concerns, according to expert Jon Darch.

The founder of the Safe Standing Roadshow predicts that a system known as rail seating is on the horizon for the English football’s top flight, and said: “My gut feeling is that we are heading for its introduction in August 2018.”

Premier League clubs have discussed the possibility of using rail seating, formally adopted in Germany in the 1998/99 season.

Currently, their stadia have to be all-seater because of legislation implemented after the Taylor Report into the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989 in which 96 Liverpool fans were killed.

Celtic introduced a 2,600-capacity section of rail seating at Celtic Park in last year, and it has been widely hailed as a success.

Despite this, the UK government recently stated that it remains “unconvinced” by safe standing but says it will continue to “monitor the situation”.

Crushing

However, Darch told me that Celtic’s rail seating ‘trial’ has put safe standing firmly on the agenda of both politicians and football’s administrators.

“Celtic don’t like to use the word ‘trial’ when talking about their rail seating section. As far as they are concerned, it’s here to stay, but they call it a ‘trial’ to keep  Glasgow city council happy,” he said.

Celtic's safe standing section

Safe standing at Celtic Park

England’s top-flight grounds have been all-seater since the 1994-95 season for safety reasons.

But fans continue to rise to their feet during games, and away fans often stand throughout a match.

Many supporters have called for the introduction of rail seating, which allows standing but prevents the kind of dangerous crushing that was once common on the terraces.

Since 2011, Darch has been on a mission to enhance the credibility of rail seating by touring a roadshow around the UK to give people a real taste of the benefits of a system which has worked so successfully in other countries, most notably Germany.

“Most big German grounds were once almost two-thirds standing, and the reason they invented rail seats was because Uefa said games in its competitions in the future had to be played in all-seater stadia.

“That was a problem for German clubs because they had these big terraces. Also, they were member-controlled,  their members were fans, and the fans wanted to carry on standing.”

On the agenda

Although Darch is pleased at the progress he still can’t quite understand why it has taken until now for the Premier League to explore the idea. In a TalkSPORT poll, just over 90% of fans questioned said they supported the introduction of safe standing.

“I think it’s very likely that the clubs will mandate [Premier League executive chairman] Richard Scudamore to explore further the possibilities with the government, and my gut feeling is that we are heading for the introduction of rail seating in August 2018,” he said.

John Darch

Darch (top right) in Hanover’s safe standing area

“It’s strange that the Premier League has never discussed it with their clubs, and the clubs have never sat down together to discuss the topic until now.

“But the main thing is that it’s on the agenda and the government will listen to Scudamore a lot more than they do to clubs and especially fans on the matter.

“With the power the Premier League has, it can certainly make it happen.”

Darch stressed that comparisons between traditional open terraces and modern safe standing/rail seating sections are “daft and irrelevant”.

Poor management

“People fall very easily into the trap that conventional terraces were unsafe,” he said.

“Yes, the design of safe standing is different and, yes, there is far less possibility of movement in a rail seating area. But well-maintained and well-managed terraces like they have at Burton Albion’s ground are completely safe.

“What caused Hillsborough, and what causes nearly every major every disaster at sports stadia or other large public assemblies of people is poor management of a moving crowd.

“It happened at Ellis Park in South Africa in 2001 – 43 people lost their lives, and if you read the judge’s views of that disaster, it read nearly exactly the same as Lord Justice Taylor’s on Hillsborough.

“That stadium was and is an all-seater ground and a top five-star Fifa stadium. It’s a good stadium, but because there was a failure of management of a moving crowd at the point of entry, people died.”

Safe standing economics

Some cite the cost of introducing safe standing as the main reasons for clubs’ hesitation to progress with the idea.

The Safe Standing Roadshow website gives an example of how it could impact on a club’s matchday revenue:

Stadium A

Current capacity: 35,000

Two-tier stand behind each goal

Lower tier of the home end (3,500 seats) converted to safe standing

A section of the away end (1,750) converted to safe standing

Total seat spaces converted: 5,250 (15% of capacity)

Total standing spaces created: 9,450 (5,250 x 1.8)

Revised total capacity: 39,200 (+4,200, i.e. +12%)

Example seat price: £25

Example standing price: £18

Total gate receipt potential before: £875,000 per match / £17.5m per 20 games

Total gate receipt potential after: £913,850 per match / £18.25m per 20 games

Potential gate receipt increase per 20-game season: £750,000

Potential total extra revenue (incl. fans’  spend on catering etc.): £1.4m

Source: The Safe Standing Roadshow.

‘Huge potential’

Darch said: “Rail seating has huge potential to bring the price of tickets down, with more space created by the system. There is a £30 cap now on away tickets in the Premier League [thanks to] protests by fans.

“We can make more progress on this in the future and if and when rail seating is introduced.

If the rules and regulations in this country permit more than one spectator per space – there’s room to do that- then clubs could reduce their ticket prices for that area and still make the same amount of money or even more.”

Darch predicts fans to have a big say on prices, as they did at Liverpool earlier this season when fans staged a walkout protest after the club’s owners proposed a hike in certain tickets.

“Liverpool fans are the perfect example of the amount of power spectators hold,” he explained. “They made the clubs owners change their mind on the ticket increase idea and it typified that football is all about the fans. It was a great moment.”

“Outrageous insult”

Darch believes that the introduction of safe standing would be a fitting tribute to the victims of Hillsborough and their families, that the link between the disaster and the standing ban is built on a “falsehood”.

“It’s based on the idea that fans who like to stand are hooligans, and therefore it says the 96 were hooligans and implies indirectly that they were guilty of the disaster which unfolded that day”

“It is assumed that the standing ban was brought in because Lord Justice Taylor decided that standing up at football was somehow dangerous and the only way to watch it was to be sit down. That isn’t the truth.

“The truth is: the standing ban was brought in because the Thatcher government saw it as a means of countering hooliganism in the same way that they saw the idea of a national ID card scheme as a means of countering hooliganism.

“Before April 15th 1989, Thatcher’s government were already moving towards all-seater stadia and the national ID card scheme.

“In many ways, the disaster at Hillsborough gave them an excuse to bring in a piece of legislation which they probably wouldn’t have been able to bring in due to the opposition they would had faced had there not been that disaster.

“If the Hillsborough families who still oppose standing think about that, the reality is that the standing ban is actually a huge outrageous insult to the good names of their loved ones.

“It’s based on the idea that football fans who like to stand are hooligans, and therefore it says the 96 were hooligans and implies indirectly that they were guilty of the disaster which unfolded that day.”

Views changing on Merseyside

Liverpool have in the past made it known that they do not wish to contribute or engage to the debate on safe-standing out of respect for the Hillsborough families who oppose the idea. But Darch believes it is a view which is changing.

“Every single member in that room at the spirit of Shankly AGM were in favour of rail seating” – John Darch

Liverpool Echo journalist James Pearce says Liverpool and the Hillsborough families should be deeply involved in any discussion which takes place on the topic, but Darch feels it shouldn’t be dismissed if they choose not to.

“It would be nice to have them heavily involved, not only the families but the fans as well. But if they don’t wish to engage in the discussion then it shouldn’t be held back,” he said.

In September 2016 Liverpool supporter group The Spirit of Shankly held a meeting on whether they should formally adopt a position of safe-standing and the reaction by the members was very positive.

Group chairman Jay McKenna told the Liverpool Echo: “As an organisation, we have always taken a step back from the conversation on ‘safe standing’ and never really joined in.”

In favour

But following the Hillsborough inquest last year, which ruled the fans were unlawfully killed, and the successful trial at Celtic, the group felt it was the right time to have a discussion on whether now is the time to formally adopt a position.

The supporters’ group decided to ask all their members online their views of rail-seating and the return of standing, and the results which came back were staggering.

“The first person who had to speak in the room was a man who had lost his brother at Hillsborough and Spirit of Shankly then widened that question to all their membership online,” said Darch.

“Every single member present at the at the Spirit of Shankly AGM who spoke were in favour of rail seating. Online, 93% came back saying ‘yes we should adopt a formal position of safe standing’ and now they have set out a long and very in-depth consultation time table.

That will take them through to late spring-early summer 2017 where they will announce their formal position on standing.”

Five famous footballing returns

November 29, 2016 in Opinion

Many Liverpool fans were hoping against hope that club icon Steven Gerrard might have one last hurrah at Anfield after leaving MLS club LA Galaxy.

Gerrard, 36, opted to end his playing career last week, but may one day return to Liverpool in another role – possibly as a coach and potential manager?

For a footballer, leaving the club where you are seen as a legend is an incredibly hard decision, but the chance to return as a player or manager can be an even bigger one.

Remind everyone why you became a hero in the first place, or ruin your reputation; which way will it fall?

Here are five of those who did it best:

5 – Graeme Le Saux – Chelsea

Graeme Le Saux’s first spell at Chelsea ended in anger but the second was glorious.

Le Saux was the most expensive defender in England at the time at £5m – a far cry from the £30m Chelsea recently paid for David Luiz to return to the club after a £50million move to PSG two years earlier – when he returned after a controversial first spell in west London. 17 Sep 2000: Graeme Le Saux of Chelsea in action during the FA Carling Premiership match against Leicester City at Stamford Bridge in London. Leicester City won the match 2-0. Mandatory Credit: Dave Cannon /Allsport

In 1993 Le Saux was a regular starter at Stamford Bridge, but rarely lasted the whole match, and when he was taken off at Southampton, it proved too much for him to take and he ripped off his shirt in disgust, throwing it on the feet of manager Ian Portfield.

The defender was soon on his way to Blackburn Rovers, where in his first full season, he helped them win the Premier League title and became an England regular.

In 1997 he returned to Chelsea, making him English football’s most expensive defender and in the next three years, they won the FA Cup, League Cup, Cup winner’s Cup and UEFA Super Cup.

Leaving Chelsea as the “villain” for showing disrespect to the manager was tough enough, but returning to the club that sold you after your misdemeanours is a risk Le Saux took and evidently it paid off.

4 – Thierry Henry – Arsenal

When Arsenal’s record goalscorer Thierry Henry left for Barcelona in 2007, after eight years, 245 appearances and 174 goals, a huge part of his heart remained in north London.

So in some ways it was no surprise when five years later he returned to train with the team, and, inevitably, play for them again. Henry celebrates after scoring the winner on his return to Arsenal.

By then Henry was playing for MLS side New York Red Bulls, and during their 2012 off-season, he trained with the Gunners to keep in shape.

But when they suffered an injury crisis, manager Arsene Wenger looked to his former talisman and he signed a two-month loan deal. ‘King’ Henry was back.

He made four appearances and scored twice; the first came in his debut when he scored the winner goal in an FA Cup tie against Leeds.

His last ever Gunners goal came in his final match under Wenger – again, the winner, in injury time for a 2-1 triumph at Sunderland. No wonder there is a statue of him outside the Emirates Stadium.

Henry is now Belgium’s assistant manager and a pundit on Sky Sports. Many Arsenal fans would love to see him succeed Wenger as manager one day. Is another hero’s return too much to ask for?

3 – Ian Rush – Liverpool

Ian Rush’s 346 goals in two spells at Liverpool make him the club’s all-time record goalscorer. At his peak in the 1980s, there was no-one to rival him in English football. Ian rush celebrates scoring at Wembley for Liverpool.

Having won four league titles and two European Cups in six years with the Reds, in 1987 Rush left to join Serie A giants Juventus. It did not go well, with just seven goals in 29 appearances for the Italians.

Loaned back to Liverpool for the second year of his Juventus contract, Rush’s Midas touch returned, as he scored 30 goals in 42 matches.

A permanent return home was just a matter of time, and the Welsh striker spent another eight seasons at Anfield, making 245 more appearances and adding a further 90 goals. During this time he also won another league title, two FA Cups and became their record goalscorer.

A legend? Unquestionably.

2 – Didier Drogba – Chelsea

Didier Drogba was not just a legend as a player; over two spells at Chelsea, he helped change the history of his club.

His first spell, after joining from Marseille in 2004, saw Chelsea win their first league title in 50 years, in his debut season.

Another Premier League title followed the next year, setting up a glorious era in which he became the first ever player to score in four different FA Cup finals, as well as the first African player to score 100 Premier League goals. But nothing compared to how he signed off his first stint at the club.

His 88th minute equaliser in the 2012 Champions League final against Bayern Munich, in Munich, took the game to extra time and then penalties. And who scored the winner? Drogba, of course.Drogba celebrates scoring the winning goal in the Champions League final.

When he left that summer to join Chinese league side Shanghai Shenhua, after eight years, 226 appearances, 100 goals and eight trophies, a fan poll by Chelsea’s official club magazine saw the Ivorian named as the club’s best-ever player.

Supporters probably thought they would never see his like again. They were wrong.

Drogba’s stint in China was short-lived, and soon he was playing for Galatasaray in Turkey, where he added the 2013 Turkish Super Cup to his medal collection.

The following year, he was back at the Bridge, signing a one-year contract for manager Jose Mourinho – like Drogba, enjoying his second spell at Chelsea.

Drogba managed four more goal in 28 appearances, before announcing that the final game of the season against Sunderland would be his last for the club.

After half an hour, he had to come off injured, but rather than limping off, he was chaired off the field by his team-mates. Now that’s a stylish exit.

The success Drogba enjoyed in his first spell at Chelsea meant that coming back for a second time he had to be as good, if not better than he was previously. Undoubtedly, he was a good playing an integral part in saving Chelsea’s season and thats why he is second.

1 – Paul Scholes – Manchester United

An increasingly rare one-club man, Paul Scholes’ 466 appearances for Manchester United over 17 years make him one of the modern greats.

In his testimonial match in August 2011, the midfielder signed off with a 25-yard finish, showing that even though he was retiring, he had still not lost his touch and he could have played on for a while yet. But no-one expected that he would actually do so.

Five months later, with United going through an uncharacteristic rough patch, he was back, making his ‘second debut’ by coming on to score in the Manchester derby, and also finding the net in his first start second time around. Scholes makes his second debut for United in a Manchester derby.

He was persuaded to sign another one year contract extension, keeping him at United until the end of the following season, and retired for good at the end of the 2012-13 season – fittingly, picking up a yellow card in his farewell match. Well, he never was much of a tackler…

His total of 25 major trophies makes him the most decorated English footballer of all time, and he is now co-owner of Salford City FC, a coach at United and a pundit on BT Sport.

The fact that Scholes completely retired from football before returning to top level football looking fitter than ever, makes his comeback the greatest of all.

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