Licensed standing begins

Chelsea v Liverpool has been a very big game in recent years – and the latest match was no exception.  Two of the best clubs in the country, both needing a win to try to catch Manchester City FC at the top of the Premier League, going toe-to-toe before a full capacity crowd at Stamford Bridge with countless millions watching on TVs in the UK and around the world. 

But the match which took place on Sunday (2 January) was important not only to determine Premier League positions, but also for the introduction of licensed standing.  The match was the first top flight football match to allow fans to stand for nearly 30 years.  After many years of leading on this issue, I’m pleased to say “I was there”.  

I had every confidence in Chelsea’s safety management team but I was particularly keen to witness their ability to manage the crowds in these areas – and also the reaction from fans themselves.

What really stood out – before, during and after the match – was just how good the stewards were in managing the new standing areas.  Stewards, at the best of times, have a difficult job to do.  But due to excellent planning and preparation by the safety team at Stamford Bridge, in-depth briefings, and a clear directive to be firm but fair and ensure control of the areas, the stewards did an excellent job.

Speaking to the stewards on duty in the areas, they were very pleased with the safe standing, as they felt it made their lives easier – no constant patrolling asking fans to sit down, only to be ignored.

What also struck me was the reaction of the fans.  Throughout the match I spoke with home and away fans, who were all happy with the introduction of licensed standing.  I spoke to one female Liverpool supporter who was there with her son.  She had been anxious about attending because of comments in the media that areas with licensed standing would be ‘no go’ areas for families.  However, she told me she’d found their allocated spaces to be a very safe environment, and that she and her son had a great time.

Her comments, however, struck me hard.  A return to standing in the top two tiers of football is an emotive issue.  How can it not be after the tragedy of Hillsborough? But this is not a return to the days of old, with huge standing terraces and the discomfort that usually went with standing in those areas. This is a modern approach with the focus on improving fan safety.

We know that many fans prefer to stand while enjoying football. 

In an industry where reforms have often followed tragedy, it makes a very refreshing change to do something proactively, whilst at the same time delivering what many thousands of fans have been calling for, for many years – the  choice to legally stand safely and cheer on their teams.

Licensed standing areas have not been brought in overnight.  They have been established carefully, based on research, which started in 2017 and following years of campaigning from the Football Supporters’ Association.  

Chelsea FC is one of only five early adopter grounds that are eligible to offer licensed standing areas, alongside with Cardiff City FC, Manchester City FC, Manchester United FC and Tottenham Hotspur FC.  To become an early adopter, grounds had to meet strict criteria, developed following consultation with a number of key organisations, including the Premier League, EFL and the police.  

The early adopter programme will run until the end of the season, and will be independently evaluated by CFE Research.  The findings will help inform the Government’s decision on the future of the policy.

Lord Justice Taylor’s report into the Hillsborough tragedy stated that “complacency is the enemy of safety”.  That quote is as relevant today as it was 30 years ago – we must never be complacent.  Nor should we discount advances in safety simply because it is a change to the established norm.   Our focus is, and always will be, the safety of all fans at sports grounds.  The introduction of licensed standing areas is an important and exciting step forward.  I’m looking forward to seeing it develop over the rest of the season.