OPINION: '˜Safe standing will improve atmosphere among football fans'

15th April 1989 will be a date forever etched in the memories of English football supporters.

Wednesday, 28th March 2018, 1:38 pm
Updated Wednesday, 28th March 2018, 1:40 pm

It was a day that shaped the foreseeable future of our football stadiums. But, almost three decades on since the Hillsborough disaster, is now the time for standing to return to our terraces?

The subsequent inquiry by Lord Justice Taylor, stipulated that clubs operating within the top two divisions in England and Wales, must be all seated by August of 1994. The rest, as we know, is history.

And since that fateful match between Nottingham Forest and Liverpool, to my knowledge, there hasn’t been a single loss of life due to crowd congestion in this country.

So, let’s fast forward almost 30 years into the future, its 2018 and there is a smell of revolution in the air. Why? Because, an innovative and effective design is set to set to sweep the nation, and once it’s officially approved, it’ll be here to stay.

Rail Seating or Safe Standing, whichever of the terms suits you best, is already proving its worth in Scotland and Germany, and for me it ticks every box.

I recently attended a safe standing road show in Nottingham. It was organised by the Forza Garibaldi supporters group, and proved to be a hugely positive affair.

A gentleman by the name of Jon Darch was the guest speaker, and his intelligence and exuberance in promoting the Rail Seating project compelled me to pen this very article.

Jon is a Bristol City supporter, who spends a lot of time in Germany due to work commitments; he took in his first City game back in 1968, in the open end at Ashton Gate.

Not only does he continue to support the Red half of Bristol, but he also holds a season ticket at Union Berlin, which makes him extremely well placed to promote the Rail Seating project.

So, what are Rail Seats? They are robust metal seats with a high back forming a sturdy rail for safe standing. They run the full length of each row and prevent any kind of surging, crushing or buffeting.

The seats can be folded up flush between the uprights and locked in position, and this caters for your standing supporters. But, for competitions such as the Champions League, which stipulated all seating venues from the year 2000 onwards, the seats are basically unlocked and flipped down to comply with the tournament rules. Genius!

If you have followed Nottingham Forest away from home at any point, you will have no doubt stood in a portion of the stadium meant for sitting.

It’s very dangerous when you consider that the only thing preventing you from plummeting into the row in front is a shin high plastic seat. At both PSV Eindhoven and Ajax there were many serious injuries and even broken bones, all caused by standing among standard seating.

I spoke to Forza Garibaldi’s Greg Mitchell about the possibility of safe standing and what it would mean to the fan movement that he represents.

He said: “It would show me that the authorities behind our game, be it local government, councils, the SGSA (Sports Ground Safety Authority) or my club care about me as a fan.

“I’m part of a section of fans at every single ground across the country, who wants to stand and create the best possible atmosphere, to show we care more about our team than the opposing fans do theirs.

“If at Forest a small section of rail seats replaced the normal ones that would tell me and others like me that this is the place to stand and sing your heart out for 90 minutes.”

Greg went on to say that flags and plastic clappers are not the answer, but rail seating most definitely is!

To the sceptics among us, you may well say that it’s all speculative and not yet proven. But, that couldn’t be further from the truth; Jon Darch informed me that Rail Seating has been working brilliantly in Germany for quite some time. Clubs like Hannover encompass 4000 Rail Seats whilst in Borussia Dortmund’s famous ‘Yellow Wall’, they boast close to the 8000 mark.

Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion is world famous for its electric atmosphere and vibrant fan base, and Rail Seating/Safe Standing has had a huge part to play in its evolution.

The closest working example is up in Scotland, where Glasgow Celtic introduced their Rail Seating last season. Like Dortmund, the Bhoys are world renowned for their match day atmosphere and huge crowds, so it was the ideal case study from which to judge this ground breaking project.

Has it been a success?

I spoke with lifelong Celtic season ticket holder John Sutherland about the effect that Safe Standing has had at Parkhead.

He said: “Since the inception of Safe Standing the match experience has been enhanced tenfold, the 3000 within the area is made up of all age groups.

“It’s home to our famous Green Brigade, prior to its introduction the atmosphere had become somewhat flat during league matches.

“However, the enthusiasm emanating from the Safe Standing area is seen and heard with displays of colourful banners, lead chanting and choreography.

“The whole experience becomes so infectious, especially on European nights. Safe standing is no doubt an all round winner and a must for home supporters!”

Closer to home, Shrewsbury Town are set to become the first English club to install the Rail Seating.

They are legally permitted to do so because they’ve not operated in the top two divisions since the Taylor Report was published. And, this will be the first of many I promise you.

The Shrews, have submitted an application for 550 standing spaces built on the Celtic model, which was proving successful. Roger Groves, joint chair of the supporter parliament came up with the idea after speaking with Jon Darch and after a lot of hard work, is set to see his dream become a reality.

Roger told me that the vocal fan base will likely relocate to the new standing area and create an improved atmosphere. And as for safety, Roger said the following: “Safety is something you have to be mindful of with the traditional seating, especially when someone scores a goal.”

It doesn’t take a genius to recognise the patterns emerging from the testimonials we’ve read upon thus far. Safety has increased and co existed beautifully with the return of the terrace atmospheres we thought were gone forever.

No wonder that the likes of Chelsea, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur have all enquired about Rail Seating/Safe Standing areas to be incorporated in their new stadium plans.

Spurs have actually future proofed their new South Stand and made it ready for Rail Seating, telling supporters that, when permitted, their tickets for that area will be for a standing section.

The added bonus with brand new stadia is that they can be constructed to accommodate two standing places for every one Rail Seat. The older arenas like the City Ground would have a 1/1 ratio because of the limitations of the row spacing, but importantly would be no less safe than others.

As a Nottingham Forest supporter of over 31 years, I would absolutely love to see a Safe Standing area at the City Ground, where the likes of Forza Garibaldi, and anyone else for that matter could chant away in complete safety.

I’m absolutely certain that the atmosphere in our famous old stadium would improve for the better and maybe roar us back to the Premier League?

As a footnote to my findings, I was lucky enough to speak with Conservative MP for Amber Valley, Nigel Mills about his thoughts on the Rail Seating/Safe Standing project.

Nigel is a Notts County supporter and had the following to say: “I’ve always liked standing, and if it can be done safely, I have no objection to it. I do think it creates a better atmosphere and it’s worked in Germany so we aren’t just theorizing, and they get big, passionate crowds too. Safety has to be paramount though!”

I’m absolutely certain that when the government policy is changed regarding Rail Seating, we will see a plethora of clubs installing it for their supporters.