End of year reflections from the Chair

That time of year has arrived, when we start to look back on the 12 months that has been and looking forwards at what is to come in the new year.

Looking back at 2021, it was certainly a year we will never forget. With the challenges we all faced during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, little did we know the enormous scale of the crisis and the impact it would continue to have on the world, and for us in the sports sector during the past year.

Despite the pandemic, it’s been an extremely busy year for the Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA). I’m extremely proud of the way the SGSA and the rest of the sector have responded and adapted. What we have all accomplished in a year that was full of unforeseen events, has shown what can be achieved when we work together. It has been an honour being Chair of the SGSA during such testing times!

My involvement with the SGSA began in the early 1990’s, when it was known as the Football Licensing Authority (FLA). As an architect, and avid football fan, I was deeply affected by the tragedies of Bradford and Hillsborough, and felt the profession needed to urgently step up to help ensure such disasters never happened again. At the time, the importance I felt of using my architectural background to improve the safety of spectators is what set my career direction to become an architect and a board member of the FLA and SGSA.

Fast forward 30 years, the news of my appointment as Chair of the SGSA was extremely welcome. Looking back on the past nine months as Chair, a great deal has been accomplished during unusual circumstances. I was entering uncharted territory by taking on the responsibility of chairing my first board meeting as Chair of a public body, as well as my first session with Chairs of Boards and Chief Executives of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) through a computer screen.

I knew I would be re-joining during testing times. Not only was the world dealing with COVID-19, but the Chief Executive of the SGSA, Martyn Henderson, had been seconded to direct the Events Research Programme for DCMS, with Ken Scott stepping in as acting CEO of the SGSA. During this period, the SGSA was regaining momentum around the significant and historic change of introducing licensed standing, which will see five ‘early adopter’ clubs offering fans the opportunity to stand in certain areas of all-seater stadium from 1 January next year. Having always been a big advocate for licensed standing to be recognised, I was extremely pleased to be involved in the implementation of this approach.

Alongside licensed standing, the SGSA was reviewing and approving the licence applications of all 94 football grounds in the Premier, Championship and Football Leagues, including Wembley and Principality Stadium. This is one of our most important responsibilities – without a SGSA licence, league football grounds would not be able to admit spectators. With the loss of spectators and the uncertainty around the safe return of fans to their beloved club grounds, we can safely say our licensing process for the 2020/21 season was a unique experience for everyone involved, but between the inspectorate, the executive and the board, we delivered.

Unfortunately, this year the UK football sector was hit by the most shocking event since the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. The Euros 2020 Final at Wembley should have been a celebration of all that was great about football, but sadly we can all agree that England lost both on and off the pitch. The shocking actions of a minority of people threatened the safety and enjoyment for all. We at the SGSA recognise there were important lessons to be learned, and we will work with our partners in the football family to ensure such events never occur again.

It has been a fast moving and busy nine months for the SGSA, and I feel honoured to be back in a great organisation full of talented and dedicated people working on extremely important matters!

As we head into the start of 2022, we are all now dealing with the challenges that the Omicron variant is bringing.  Beyond this, we have a wide range of work to accomplish – not least the safe introduction of licensed standing in seated areas at early adopter grounds and the implementation of results from an external review of the SGSA.  Throughout it all, we will continue to lead, support, and advise the world of sports grounds safety.

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Derek Wilson, Chair

See other reflections on 2021:

2021 – reasons to be cheerful part 4 – Martyn Henderson, Chief Executive

Reflections on 2021 – Ken Scott, Head of Inspectorate