Taylor Made – 30 years since the formation of the Football Licensing Authority

Purely by chance, the Government’s manifesto commitment to introduce safe standing in seated areas at licensed sports grounds has come almost exactly 30 years since the formation of the Sports Grounds Safety Authority’s (SGSA’s) predecessor, the Football Licensing Authority (FLA).

As the only original board member of the FLA still to be involved with the SGSA – most recently as editor of the Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds (Green Guide) – the decision has a particular resonance, and brings back a flood of memories.

We newly appointed FLA board members first met in early 1990, in an outpost of the Home Office, somewhere in Victoria. I knew no-one apart from Trevor Brooking, the former England midfielder, whom I’d interviewed once as a journalist, and Sam Thorburn, a genial Scottish engineer who, a decade earlier, had worked on the transformation of Ibrox Park into an all-seater stadium. The Taylor Report, of course, was hot off the press as we gathered.

Our chair was a feisty lawyer and ex-amateur boxer, Norman Jacobs, who called me ‘boy’. I was easily the youngest in the room, and seemingly the only board member to identify as a ‘fan’, or to argue in favour of safe standing.

Around the table were also senior figures from the fire service, police, emergency planning and local government. Jacobs nevertheless insisted we were not there to represent specific interests. At all times, we had to be impartial.

Tough too. For the creation of the FLA, and indeed the Football Stadia Advisory Design Council, on which I also sat, was hardly met with enthusiasm in the world of football. What did we government-appointees know about how to run a club? Hillsborough, some club directors still muttered in private, had been a one-off.

What I recall most was the honesty around the table. A former Chief Constable accepted that policing had to change. There was contrition from the ambulance services. Stadium architects freely offered their expertise. All shared an ingrained sense of purpose; that the conditions that had led to Hillsborough must undergo a complete overhaul.

Impressive too were the FLA staff, seconded from various parts of the Home Office under Chief Executive, John de Quidt, backed up by Keith Sears. When the FLA moved into proper offices, in Cavendish Square, it was to Keith’s room that I and others would head with questions about legislation, procedure and governance. In the main office Keith Chevalier decked the walls with club banners; partly to brighten things up but also, I felt, to show visitors that several of us did, in fact, rather like football.

But football often didn’t like us. Under a grilling from Norman Jacobs, one senior football executive memorably dried up for a full two minutes or so, unable to answer a basic query on policy. Board member Judith Fisher found herself barred from male-only directors’ lounges on match days. The newly appointed FLA inspectors, meanwhile, brought back tales of missing safety certificates, rusting stands and obstructive officials.

Gradually, much good practice did emerge, and the message hit home. The FLA was not there to hector, but to help. Yes we had teeth. But brains too.

Another memory: when board member Margaret Talbot described a new approach known as ‘risk assessment’. I confess many of us guffawed. How could that work?

But it did, and so did the FLA, now the SGSA. A few months back we mourned the death of one of those original inspectors, Jim Chalmers. A true gent, he’d been a match commander at Villa Park when I really was a boy. Norman Jacobs and several others from 1990 are also, sadly, no longer around.

Of course it’s tempting to suggest that the recent Government commitment on safe standing represents a U-turn. But as we all know, the world of facility management and design has changed so completely over the last 30 years that we simply cannot compare the conditions in which we operate now with those of 1990.

And that, I am bound to say, is partly a result of the work done by the FLA and SGSA. Safe standing does not mean the wheel has come full circle. Rather, it means a new journey, and one that, I feel confident, will lead to our leading grounds to becoming safer and to offer a better experience for fans all round.

In other words, pretty much what we set out to achieve in 1990.

Simon Inglis was an FLA board member from 1990-96 and has since edited the Fourth and Sixth editions of the Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds (Green Guide). On behalf of the SGSA he is currently editing a new edition of Safety Management.