After nearly three decades, fans will now be allowed to stand while watching Premier League games – a measure designed to avert another disaster at the stadium according to a security expert.
The New Year’s rule change means that clubs that have been approved as “first-time users” and have rail seats installed in parts of their grounds can finally allow fans to use them.
COVID-19 may have shaken football’s festive schedule, but Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham are all set to start allowing fans to stand in designated areas.
All seated stadiums became the norm in top English football after the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 in which 97 Liverpool supporters were killed.
The Taylor Report in 1994 concluded that a failure of police control led to the disaster and recommended the conversion of the large stadiums into full arenas.
The ban on standing has, however, been constantly flouted by fan sections at some clubs, especially during big games.
Ken Scott of the Sports Grounds Safety Authority told Sky News: “What we cannot have is another disaster to occur and the risks resulting from people standing persistently in sitting areas that are not. not designed for these people to stand are real.
“This (the rail seats) is now designed to prevent the risk of what we call a gradual crowd collapse so that it manages that risk but at the same time gives fans the choice they express.
“It’s really good that we have something in place now that is not the result of disaster or tragedy.”
Some activists and those close to Hillsborough had objected to the idea, but Liverpool fan Gareth Roberts of The Anfield Wrap podcast said he believed attitudes had shifted given the way security worked in d ‘other European stadiums and Celtic in Scotland.
He told Sky News: “While I understand the sensitivities, we have to move forward now and accept that this makes the grounds safer.
“The Spirit of Shankly (fan group) did polls, families even stood up to Celtic and saw how it worked. I think some of the more hardened activists who have opposed it for so long that they’ve changed their mind now and they can see it’s safe. “
Celtic has had rail seats for the past five years in a section of Celtic Park and has a code of conduct for the fans who stick there.
This is something that Mr Roberts himself tried out and was extremely impressed with the atmosphere it created in the stadium. He said: “Right away I felt a lot safer… you are standing but you have your space – you can’t fall back, you can’t fall forward, there is no ‘domino effect. “
“You give the fans the choice and that’s what the fans have been asking for for years,” he added.
Police chief Mark Roberts, who heads football police in Britain, told Sky News he was not against the concept but said clubs need to make sure fans stay in their designated spaces and do not congregate in dangerous numbers in particular areas.
He said standing up can also make policing football more difficult. He said: “We have recommended that you should not have areas standing at home and outside next to each other because it is a flash point.”
“It is more difficult to identify people shouting insults, racist insults,” he added.
“If people are standing it is more difficult to identify if they are launching missiles, fireworks and again this presents challenges for the police if you go to potentially crowded areas to try to stop someone in the middle. “
More than 12,000 safe standing places have been created at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge, representing more than a quarter of the total capacity of 41,000.
Most are at the famous Shed End which once housed thousands of fans on open terraces behind one of the goals and will now see fans at home and away having the opportunity to stand.
Cardiff City also has ‘early adopter’ status in the league, but the temporary ban on supporters from matches in Wales, due to COVID19 cases, means they face a delay in putting implementation of the project.
A club spokesperson told Sky News it was frustrating, but added: “We hope to start our first home league game of 2022 – against Blackburn on January 15.”
Kevin Miles of the Football Supporters Association said it was now up to fans and clubs whether security was introduced on other Premier League pitches: “I think people have waited so long for this to happen that no one wants to do anything to jeopardize their lawsuit, ”he said.
“Fans are probably the people most interested in safety on football fields because we are the ones who suffer when things go wrong, so fans have a vested interest in making sure that works.”