If fans want to enjoy football on their feet and can do safely, there is no need for draconian stewarding, says Michael Glenister
Travelling fans who hanker after standing areas in the all-seat era often mutter bitterly before grudgingly taking their seat. Around a hundred Cardiff City fans defied this habit and took part in a boycott of the closing stages of their fixture at Leeds United on October 30. Their gripe seems to have focused on the ejection of a number of their fellow supporters for persistent standing. At £36 a ticket, it is easy to see why Cardiff fans may have felt aggrieved that they were not allowed to enjoy the game standing up.
Some have since claimed that heavy-handed stewarding aggravated the problem. On the other hand, those in fluorescent jackets were only enforcing the rules set out in in the ground regulations of Elland Road. In accordance with the Football Spectators Act 1989, clubs in the two uppermost divisions of English football are required to provide a seat for every spectator. Nonetheless, it is not obligatory that these facilities be used.
While the Football League's model ground regulations suggest that persistent standing in seated areas should be prohibited, it is not itself an offence. Indeed, the Department for Culture Media and Sport explained in a letter to the Football Supporters' Federation (FSF) in 2008 that "at no point has it been argued that the individual spectator commits a criminal offence by standing in a seated area". Subsequently, while many clubs forbid persistent standing in seated areas and are prepared to enforce such restrictions, plenty take a more lenient approach.
Wycombe Wanderers, who play in League One, currently retain a terraced home end at Adams Park, but only seating is available to away supporters. Club safety officer Richard Stanford argues that a practical interpretation is best for all parties: "If necessary we will intervene in cases where fans want to stand but they're impeding the view of those who are seated," he says. "But if they're doing it in a safe way and are not blocking any exits or walkways, then I see no problem. We try to take a common sense approach and with my name on the safety certificate I wouldn't allow anything that wasn't safe."
Stanford believes that aggressive stewarding tactics can exacerbate any potential disturbances. "We focus on customer service. I want every supporter to leave Adams Park saying that they were treated well and treated fairly, win, lose or draw. I want them to say that it was an enjoyable experience, because ultimately we want them to come back. It doesn't cost us anything to take a polite and sensible approach."
Wycombe frequently receive praise from away fans who are impressed by the customer orientated approach at Adams Park. The club was named Family Club of the Year in consecutive seasons 2006-07 and 2007-08. Wanderers also included terracing in plans for a new stadium revealed earlier this year. The merits of a move away from Adams Park were contested by many supporters and the relocation project was later dismissed by the council. Nonetheless, the club should be applauded for their intentions to follow the example of Morecombe, whose new Globe Arena incorporates standing sections.
The FSF's Safe Standing campaign has been working for some time to encourage politicians to reconsider the legislation concerning terracing in the Football Spectators Act. Hugh Robertson, the minister for sport, responded earlier this year by indicating his willingness to consider arguments in favour of safe standing. The onus should be on the FSF, he said, to demonstrate that terracing could be reintroduced safely in English football stadiums in the top two divisions.
In late 2010, the Safe Standing campaign took a significant step forward as Don Foster's Private Members's Bill for Safe Standing underwent a first reading in the House of Commons. The Act, which would extend to England and Wales, provides that the secretary of state would in future be given the authority to license standing in grounds hosting matches in the Premier League and Championship. The bill was due to undergo a second reading on November 25, but this has now been postponed by parliament until January 2012. The second reading will include a vote on the bill, which would either see it progress to the committee stage or be dismissed altogether.
Until the legislation is altered, clubs would be wise to treat standing in football stadiums with a common sense approach. A number of those supporters who walked out at Elland Road have vowed never to return. Clubs that insist on strict enforcement of seating policies may find that fans would rather watch from their armchairs than sit in the stands.
From WSC 299 January 2012