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The chief inspector of the agency in charge of safety at English and Welsh football grounds has admitted the problem of fans standing in seated sections is getting worse and rail seats would be safer.
Following Lord Justice Taylor’s report into the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, clubs in the top two divisions have been required by law to have all-seater grounds.
The Football Licensing Authority was set up to oversee this rule but, having already been given a wider role, was renamed as the Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA) in 2011.
Since then, however, the calls from fans and several clubs to revisit the all-seater requirement have grown, with many campaigners pointing to Germany for proof supporters can stand safely during football games.
Most Bundesliga stadiums have sections with rail seats, rows of seats that can be flipped up and locked away, with a safety barrier separating each row.
Not covered by the English legislation, Celtic installed 3,000 rail seats at Celtic Park last year as part of a pilot scheme to test their safety and the response from fans, local authorities and police has been very positive.
Speaking as part of a safe-standing debate at the Soccerex Global Convention in Manchester, the SGSA’s Ken Scott said he will be presenting his report on Celtic to sports minister Tracey Crouch later this year and he will say the scheme is working.
“We’ve been warning clubs and issuing guidelines about persistent standing in seated sections since 2002 and, if I’m brutally honest, it’s not working,” said Scott.
“In fact, the situation is probably getting worse, so we’ve got to be interested in any new products that can address that and if you were to ask me is it safer to stand behind a barrier or to stand behind a seat, I think I know which is safer.”
Scott said rail seats were not an option when Lord Justice Taylor produced his report and little was known about them in 2008, when the Football Licensing Authority last issued its Green Guide, the safety guidelines which the SGSA is in the process of updating for next year.
When asked if the law would need to be changed in England and Wales to allow Premier League and Championship clubs to follow Celtic’s example, Scott said no but it would require a change in “government policy which they are not yet minded to do”.
Scott was joined on the panel by Celtic stadium manager Rob Buchanan, who said the pilot was introduced as a response to complaints about persistent standing and it has been reviewed after every game.
Buchanan said the section, in one of Celtic Park’s corners, has been a “resounding success”, is over-subscribed and has been visited by almost every English club. Scott even joked he was now an “honorary member of the Green Brigade”, the group of Celtic supporters who have made the rail seats their home.
Earlier this summer, League One’s Shrewsbury announced their intention to become the first team with an all-seater ground to install rail seats, which they are allowed to do as they are outside the top two divisions.
The Premier League has also recently asked its clubs for their views on the matter and West Brom have gone public on their desire to take part in a pilot scheme, provided the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) can be persuaded to approve it.
Championship clubs have already expressed their interest in such a move and the Football Association’s chairman Greg Clarke has stated his backing for a rail-seating trial.
But perhaps the most important step was taken when supporters’ group the Spirit of Shankly (SoS) surveyed Liverpool fans this summer and nearly nine in 10 said they backed the introduction of rail seats.
Scott said national “sensitivities” to feelings in Liverpool as a result of the Hillsborough disaster, which left 96 fans dead, have played a part in the slow progress towards a return to legal standing sections in England.
Safe-standing campaigner Jon Darch also took part in the debate and said a “united front” is now emerging in football that should give Crouch and DCMS the confidence they need to change the policy on the all-seater requirement.
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