Manchester United are set to reduce the capacity of Old Trafford by 2,400 to allow works to be completed to meet minimum standards for disabled fans.
The announcement has been met with joy from many disabled fans who have missed out on attending games due to lack of seating, whilst generating disappointment also as the phased introduction of seating over 3 years means that a collective Premier League pledge to have the changes fully operational by next season will be broken.
The plans will mean that:
- The current East Stand wheelchair platform will be extended across and into the Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton Stands
- New amenity seating will also be added in these areas
- When complete, the total number of wheelchair positions at Old Trafford will increase from 120 to 277, and the number of amenity seats will increase from 126 to 278
All structural work will be complete ahead of the 2017-18 campaign, allowing all the new accessible facilities to be used immediately for friendlies and some cup games.
However the club state that owing to the fact that the changes will displace a total of 2,600 Season Ticket holders, and given that very few seats become available each summer, the club has agreed a three-year phased programme of relocating affected fans in order to allow time to find suitable alternative seats, with around 800 being relocated for the 2017-18 season.
To enable this phased & flexible approach, the design will incorporate state-of-the-art reversible platforms and for next season, 100 of the 300 new positions created will be used for Premier League and some cup games.
The charity Level Playing Field described the three-year timescale as "seriously disappointing".
The list of clubs who won't meet the Premier League Access Pledge made in 2015 includes the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth and Watford as well as recently promoted clubs like Hull, Burnley and Middlesbrough.
Tony Taylor, the chairman of Level Playing Field said: "All the clubs made a pledge with a self-imposed timescale and, one by one, they seem to be saying that they are not going to meet it." He went onto state that
"Whilst we welcome the changes that have been set out, the timescale is seriously disappointing. Consideration must be given for the disabled fans who have never seen their team play at Old Trafford because of a lack of availability of tickets. It must also be stressed that the planned increase in wheelchair user spaces are spaces that have been owed to disabled fans for over 20 years."
Rebecca Hilsenrath, the EHRC chief executive said
"Manchester United have recognised that more should be done for their disabled supporters and this is the right thing to do, In our meetings we have encouraged them to implement their changes in a quicker time frame. Premier League clubs need to urgently demonstrate to us what they are doing to ensure they are compliant with the law."
United managing director Richard Arnold defended the plan which addresses the needs of disabled fans whilst taking into account the existing season ticket holder's needs. He said :
"Old Trafford is a home for all United fans and these changes will help many more of our loyal disabled supporters attend games to watch their heroes.
The Manchester United Supporters' Trust welcomed the expansion of disabled facilities but said it "noted with concern" the impact on existing season ticket holders whilst also having concern over the reduction in capacity.
On this subject Richard Arnold said,
"It's a difficult and emotional subject. We have a unique situation in that we have some 55,000 season ticket holders and enjoy sell-out crowds for every game, and the number of seats that become available each summer is very small. This makes moving large numbers of fans to similar seats within the stadium impossible in a short space of time."
To assist with the smooth transition and the disappointment of season ticket holders of losing their seats the club has introduced a compensation scheme where existing affected season ticket holders will be moved to equivalent or better seats. They will also receive complimentary cup tickets and prices will be frozen.
Chas Banks, Secretary of the Manchester United Disabled Supporters' Association (MUDSA) also welcomed the changes, saying:
"I'm filled with pride that the club I've supported since first coming to Old Trafford as a little boy in 1957, is leading the way in increasing accessible seating to meet the standards set out in the Accessible Stadia guide. It's a dream come true for me and many other disabled United fans. This is a huge task and it can't be completed overnight. However, it will be completed faster than most believed possible."
Manchester United stated that it prides itself on its work with MUDSA for more than 25 years, and will continue to ensure that accessibility remains at the forefront of our thinking:
As a campaigner for better disabled facilities, and having spent many an hour campaigning for many of these changes I have mixed feelings also on the announcement. I did hope that the changes would be brought into place in a quicker way. After all, if the structure is there why not use it? But I also see the reasoning behind the phased approach.
I remember meeting Richard Arnold back in 2015. In reply to his email requesting a meeting with me I jokingly said "Bring your own biscuits" and he did. After that meeting he said to me, don't judge me on what I say, and judge me on what I do. In reply I said when he does what he says, ill repay him with a pack of matching biscuits (green club biscuits to be precise).
Since then the club has introduced designated areas where wheelchair users can sit alongside friends & family, which is why my campaign started. They were also one of the first stadiums in the country to install a Changing Places facility.
Many more changes are taking place also, including the introduction of Season Tickets for disabled fans, and changes to disabled policy's that will mean disabled policies are more in line with other policies at the club. The club seem to be placing an emphasis on "equality", which in my books is a good start.
So now it seems the date for the biscuit delivery has been delayed until August 2020. But in hindsight, maybe getting it right over a 3 year period is better than making do this August.
The Premier League says it will submit a report to the EHRC by the end of the month on the progress clubs have made in meeting the pledge they made to disabled fans in 2015.