From Whitehall to White Hart Lane via Gateshead

Martyn Henderson, Chief Executive at the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, reviews 2018:

I’ve never had a dull moment since joining the Civil Service over 20 years ago.

Actually, that’s not true.  I once led a project to introduce shared services to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.  That was two years of my life that I’ll never get back.

But generally, I’ve had an amazing career so far – and, looking back, I have to say that 2018 has been particularly special.

One year ago, I was with the world’s nicest Minister John Glen and all-round-legend Phil Redmond in Hull for the announcement of the next UK City of Culture (many congratulations again, Coventry – you absolutely nailed it).

By June, I was celebrating the opening of the Great Exhibition of the North on the banks of the Tyne with 20,000 wildly enthusiastic Geordies.  The Exhibition welcomed millions of visitors over 80 days of record-breaking weather to experience the best in Northern Art, culture and design.

Then in August, I started a new job on secondment as the interim Chief Executive of the Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA).  How did that happen?!

Well, as detailed elsewhere, the real Chief Executive – the lovely Karen Eyre-White – is currently on Maternity Leave.  This left an opening at the top of a small but vital public body, which licenses football grounds and promotes safety for spectators of live sport domestically and around the world.

Taking on this role would be a privilege and a big challenge at any time, but perhaps particularly so this year when the debate around standing at football has taken centre-stage.

Just before I joined the SGSA, Government announced that it would commission a review of the evidence on standing. This followed a smart campaign, led jointly by the EFL and Football Supporters Federation, and a petition that attracted more than 100,000 signatories.

My first match visit was to Shrewsbury Town FC, who this season became the first club in England to follow Celtic’s lead and create a standing area, with rail seating to ensure the safety of spectators.

Shrewsbury Town is not subject to the Government’s all-seater policy, but that’s not the case for Tottenham Hotspur. The redeveloped ground at White Hart Lane will be the first in the Premier League to introduce safety bars in some areas of the ground when it opens in 2019. Government policy prevents Spurs from creating a standing area but the bars will address the risks to their fans who choose to stand despite the current ban in the top two tiers of English football.

As we approach the end of the year, and with the findings of the DCMS review due shortly, I’m really looking forward to sitting down with the new Minister for Sport and Civil Society, Mims Davies, to discuss the way forward.

The all-seater policy has been the driver for huge improvements in safety at our football grounds over the past three decades.  Will 2019 see a change to the policy?  Government will no doubt be guided by the evidence.  But whatever happens, I know this brilliant organisation – the SGSA – will have an absolutely central role in ensuring that safety always come first.