As many as eight Premier League Clubs are set to make a u-turn on the promise they made to there own disabled fans about the improvement of disabled facilities at grounds.
Last year the all 20 Premier League clubs agreed to comply with the 2003 Accessible Stadia Guide - which includes guidelines on accessible information, the minimum number of wheelchair spaces and the location of viewing areas for disabled fans by August 2017. The promise was made by the Premier League last August, and was widely welcomed at the time by many disabled fans and disability organisations.
Yet as the Premier League season kicks off again there is serious doubt over just how honorable that pledge was. With less than 12 months until the deadline is reached, have football clubs been improving the facilities for Disabled fans?
Southampton Football club for example have been busy in the closed season with improvements for matchday fans. These include increasing the amount of kiosks that sell Beer, increasing the number of tills available at the Store to reduce queues, and the introduction of a female home shirt.
But what has the club done to improve the Matchday experience of its Disabled Supporters. Well the club say:
"A full access audit by independent consultants has been carried out"
In a statement that flies in the face of the Pledge made last year, the club state, Disabled fans will see improvements being made over the next few seasons that will enhance the matchday experience.
The fact that the club are actively stating that these improvements will take place over the "next few seasons" shows that they have no intention on meeting the 2017 deadline.
Liverpool Football club have also weighed into the Disability Access fight, with a "Money before Morals" approach, and yet another example of a club who look like they have no intention of honoring the pledge.
The first phase of redevelopment work taking place at the club's Anfield stadium was focused on improving hospitality facilities, which would leave the club with only 75% of the number of wheelchair spaces recommended by the guidelines, less than before. The club insists it will only proceed with phase two of its plans if it raises enough revenue from the sale of these hospitality spaces.
Chelsea who have some of the worst disabled facilities in the league are also expected to dodge the pledge, by using their plans for a future stadium as an excuse. Disabled home and away fans are now well use to the appalling facilities at the ground, with many away fans stating that they would never return to the bridge.
In the recent Commons culture, media and sport committee's inquiry into the accessibility of sports stadiums peers were told that in total at least eight Premier League clubs were set to break the promise. Joyce Cook, chair of Level Playing Field, said that at least one club claimed it had been told by the Premier League that it did not have to meet those standards by August 2017, but only had to produce plans for how it would do so in the future.
She also revealed to the committee that a Premier League executive had said at a public event that there would be no penalties for clubs that failed to meet the guidelines by August 2017.
But why wont the Premier League bring in penalties for clubs that fail to meet these guidelines?
When you look into the make up of the Premier League, it becomes very obvious.
Firstly the Premier League is a private company but it is wholly owned by its 20 Member Clubs who make up the League at any one time. This means that each club in the Premier League is a equal shareholder, in the company.
Presently the Premier League rule book doesn't have a rule in it about meeting accessible stadia guidelines. It has over 32 rules and regulation on what clubs must put in place for the TV, Radio and Media yet only one rule that applies to Disabled Fans and thats made up of just 11 words.
Rule K.34. Each Club shall provide sufficient and adequate facilities for disabled supporters.
For additional rules to be added there would need to be a proposal of new rules or amendments at the Shareholder meeting. Each Member Club is entitled to one vote and all rule changes require the support of at least a two-thirds vote, or 14 clubs, to be agreed. 8 clubs have already actively stated that they wont meet the promise, so why would they support this rule change?
So why did the Premier League make the pledge so publicly last year. Was the pledge just a quick way of squashing the bad press the league was getting at the time, at a time that the Premier League was signing its record breaking TV deal?
It seems that leaving these decisions down to the clubs, has not worked. The accessible stadia guide was first published over 13 years ago now, and were still talking about the need for better access to sports fans.
A new law is currently in the early stages in the House of Commons which if made law would give local authorities the right to close stadiums down if they do not comply with the Accessible Stadia Guidelines. Its no surprise that the pledge was agreed as this was been debated in the house of lords. The Bill went through the House of Lords with cross party support.
Clubs need to do the right thing by their disabled fans now, rather than run the risk of losing their right to stage football at all? But sadly it seems that only the threat of loosing the power to open the stadia doors to fans, is enough to make clubs take note.
Disabled supporters have an absolute right to expect the same enjoyable, socially inclusive experience as every other fan and football clubs have a moral and legal obligation to provide this. The clock is ticking.Suggest a correction