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'Football Without Fans Is Nothing' - But Has the Government Really Got the Memo?

Posted: 05/02/2013 00:00

This week, there was promising progress in the ongoing battle for football fans to get their voices heard. After mammoth efforts from organisations such as Supporters' Direct and the Football Supporters' Federation, as well as individual fans, the Culture, Media and Sport select committee have recommended what is surely obvious - that supporters' opinions deserve to be heard, whether it be via their club or the FA. Key recommendations include:

- Wealth in the game should be distributed more fairly throughout the pyramid
- There should be a more structured relationship between clubs and supporters
- More transparency in club ownership, enabling fans to own a stake in clubs

You can read the full report here.

After all, as Liverpool fans pointed out at the Emirates this week - football without fans is nothing.

There is no doubt that the recommendations are an important breakthrough in this discourse between the fans and authorities. But recent correspondence I had with the government suggests there is still a lot of work to be done - and, ironically, a stark reminder that supporters still need to maintain their passion in the campaign for fans' rights.

The correspondence concerned the FSF's long-running Safe Standing campaign - which aims to persuade the government, football authorities and football clubs should accept the case for introducing rail seats on a trial basis in selected Premier League and Championship grounds. On other words, football supporters should merely have the choice of sitting or standing at a match, regardless of their club's league.

I won't lie - the prospect of the secretary of state for culture, media and sport responding to my concerns did not fill me with joy. In Maria Miller MP's other role as women and equalities minister, her most notable comments have been that the legal abortion limit should be reduced, much to the dismay of pro-choice females. I'm not sure why, in her other role, I thought there may be a chance of her response being in line with the views of pro-choice sports fans.

"The Government believes that all-seater stadia are the best means to ensure the safety and security of fans at football in England and Wales," she began in her letter to me. "The seating policy was put in place following the tragedy at Hillsborough and football fans are now safer and more comfortable than they were twenty three years ago."

As shocking and tragic an event as the Hillsborough Disaster was, it was not caused by standing; the Taylor Report primarily blamed poor policing, overcrowding and stadium layout. As for the concern over safety, safe standing areas exist in countries Germany, Canada and the USA - countries which consider safety as highly as the UK. I also challenge Miller to find a modern public arena less comfortable than it was in the 1980s!

She continued: "Those responsible for safety at football grounds generally consider that the introduction of all-seater stadia in the top two divisions has not only improved public safety, but also improved crowd management, crowd behaviour and policing. In addition, they provide better facilities to enjoy football matches, which has helped encourage inclusivity and diversity amongst those attending."

It's actually the last sentence here that genuinely baffles me. If there are worse facilities at a stadium with standing areas, that is surely because that club is in a lower league and therefore probably has significantly less money than those in the top two divisions. Whether a stadium has a standing area is irrelevant. Under the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, all football stadia are required to take reasonable measures to ensure they are not discriminating against disabled people - and would continue to do so if rail seats were introduced. Furthermore, the ticket prices for standing areas would be lower than seats - therefore surely promoting inclusion of football fans from low-income backgrounds (the FSF's excellent Twenty's Plenty campaign to introduce a cap of £20 tickets for away supporters is currently gaining momentum).

As for 'improved public safety and crowd management, crowd behaviour and policing', there is no evidence of these presumptions. The Green Guide shows that standing can and does provide a safe and controlled environment for fans every week at football matches in Leagues One, Two and beyond. And as a supporter who has been in many football grounds around the country, both with and without standing areas, the most common crowd management issue I come across is when stewards are unable to make supporters sit down in a seated area. Of course, if there was a choice of seated or standing areas for fans this would not be an issue!

Furthermore, the rail seat model that the FSF supports would benefit from the identification of fans by CCTV and ticket information in the same way as in seated areas. In fact, the standing areas would make easier access for police or emergency services.

The letter concludes with: "We appreciate that some fans would like to see a return of standing areas and miss the tradition, character and history of some of our former grounds. However the football authorities, police and those responsible for safety continue to support the seating policy and a compelling case has not been made to change it."

That final sentence is the most condescending of the lot. As I have highlighted, there is a compelling case and 90% (hardly 'some') of football fans agree. The patronising suggestion that the case for standing areas is based on sentimental memories of fans on the terraces wearing flatcaps and drinking Bovril is also unwelcome.

This letter proves that while progress has been made this week regarding supporters' rights in such a commercialised modern game, there is still some way to go - fans must continue to get their point across, whether it's to the government or their club.

I suggest that Miller and the department of culture, media and sport get their facts right before putting together such responses, because campaigning supporters aren't going anywhere with their tails between their legs. We shall not be moved.

 

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