AN INTERVIEW WITH JON DARCH

08/01/18

The campaign for safe-standing to be introduced to the top 2 flights of English football gathers pace, Andrew Lawn spoke to Jon Darch who runs the Safe Standing Roadshow about the campaign and how City fans can get involved in helping it a reality at Carrow Road.

Andy - For those who don't already know, what is "safe standing"?

Jon - Any form of well maintained, well managed standing is safe. Conventional terracing included. However, what most people now think of when they hear the term 'safe standing' is rail seating, like they now have at Celtic, will shortly have at Shrewsbury and have at grounds all over Europe, most notably in Germany.

Rail seats are simple metal seats that fold up flush between uprights linked by a waist-high rail. The seat locks away out of use, maximising the space for standing fans, while the rails of each seat unit link together to form continuous safety barriers along every row. The risk of falling forward over a low seat-back or of a fan in the row behind falling forward onto you is thus totally removed. You are standing. And you are safe.

For us, safe-standing comes down to 2 things; 1, improving the atmosphere at increasingly sterile grounds and 2, choice - allowing those who want to sit, the ability to sit and not have their views obstructed, while also allowing those who want to stand, to do so.

Why do you feel it's so important?

Safety, choice, atmosphere and justice.

Number 1: safety. What we have now, i.e. standing behind conventional seats, is not safe. Fans fall over the seat-backs and land on hard, unforgiving concrete. It doesn't take a clairvoyant to see how that could end up one day. So before there is a really serious injury (or worse), a safer form of seating must be installed in areas of all-seater grounds where fans habitually stand, such as the Lower Barclay. In my view, the safety authorities should actually be demanding this.

Number 2: choice. It is simply wrong to deny law-abiding football fans the choice offered to law-abiding rugby fans, horse-racing fans, concert goers, etc., etc., i.e. the choice to watch the event sat down or standing up. There is no logical or legal justification for it.

Number 3: atmosphere. There is no doubt that noise levels in British all-seater stadia are getting lower and lower. That makes for a poorer 'matchday experience' for all concerned: general admission spectators, hospitality guests and TV viewers. It makes the 'product' less attractive to TV companies, too, and may soon impact on how much they are prepared to pay for broadcasting rights. A block of standing fans singing and cheering non-stop acts as the catalyst to create a great atmosphere throughout the ground. Everyone benefits. Fans have more fun. The club have happier VIP guests (because they experience colour, noise and drama even if the game itself is drab). And TV execs have a better 'product' to sell.

Number 4: justice. The standing ban was introduced as a knee-jerk reaction to Hillsborough based on a false and now totally discredited narrative that the disaster had been caused by hooligans. The ban implied that all fans who like to stand are thugs and so to support the ban is to support this lie. The ban is a stain on the good name of all law-abiding football fans, the 96 included. Justice will have been achieved only when the ban is overturned and that offensive slur is removed.

There appears to be a sea-change, both at Carrow Road and nationally in regards to safe-standing, why do you think this is and how can fans get involved in supporting it?

With regards to the reasons for the change of stance at Carrow Road, you'd be better off asking the club rather than me. As I understand it, however, the club has been becoming increasingly supportive under the last two CEOs and the current chairman. Nationally, I think the conclusion of the Hillsborough inquests, the installation at Celtic and the poll of 18,000 Liverpool fans that showed 88% in favour of rail seating have all helped over the last 18 months to create a new sense that now is the appropriate time to be having a serious look at introducing safe standing in England and Wales.

Fans can help by lobbying their MPs. The Lib Dems, the Greens and UKIP all formally support safe standing. But Labour and the Conservatives still back the perpetuation of the 1990s anti-hooligan standing ban. We need Tory MPs in particular to be telling their senior colleagues that it is time for their policy in this area to change.

Norwich's former CEO; David McNally was famously obstructive to safe-standing, so what has changed at Carrow Road? Following your discussions with them, what have you learned? Could City become one of the vocal supporters and help lead the way?

Again, I think you're best asking the current management that question. All I can say is that I was encouraged by what I heard when I visited in December.

It now appears to us as a matter of when, rather than if, would you agree and if so, how long until that "when" is realised, especially given Brexit is taking up so much legislative time?

I agree that it's now a matter of "when", not "if". I think that using Brexit as an excuse for inertia is a red herring, as no legislative time is actually required to allow safe standing. There is no need for a change in the law, only in policy. So there is no need for lengthy debates or time-consuming drafting of new legislation.

For example, last summer, the Secretary of State decided not to issue an order requiring Brentford's Griffin Park to go all-seater, despite the fact that in May 2017 they completed their permitted three seasons in the Championship with terracing. The law gives her the power to issue that order to make such a ground go all-seater at that time. But it doesn't say that she MUST do that. Because Brentford are building a new ground that will be all-seater (albeit designed with rail seats in mind), she opted to use common sense and NOT to impose an all-seater order on Griffin Park. She can use exactly the same discretionary powers to cancel all-seater orders previously issued for other grounds, e.g. Carrow Road. No time-consuming change in the law is needed for that to happen.

Celtic and Shrewsbury are the famous flag-bearers so far, particularly Celtic. How involved have you been with those clubs and what have you learned from working with them? Also, how did their campaigns begin, was it club or fan-led?

I was involved a fair bit with both, but both were initially triggered by the fans locally.

At Celtic by their Supporters Trust, who were lobbying the club to look into safe standing, and at Shrewsbury by their Fans Parliament, who put the idea of crowd-funding an area of rail seats to their CEO. The Shrewsbury installation should happen this spring, while at Celtic they've been up and running with nearly 3,000 rail seats since August 2016, and it's been a huge success. Everyone is happy: the fans, the club, the safety guys and even the police. The atmosphere has been out of this world and there have been no safety issues at all.

You spend time with lots of groups looking to improve the atmosphere at grounds, in the absence of safe-standing, have you come across any other ideas fans could look to replicate at their own clubs in the meantime?

I think that the way atmosphere is generated at any ground has to be organic. What doesn't work, quite clearly, is artificial efforts to create an atmosphere orchestrated by the club. It has to come from the grass roots fans to be authentic, to grow and to flourish.

Although I know they are not to everyone's taste in this country, as someone who goes to German football a lot, I do think there's a lot to be said for 'capos' and drums. If you want to get thousands of fans singing in unison for an extended period, nothing beats having a 'capo' set the agenda and a drummer dictate the tempo. But both have to be good at their task. If they are, like the guys at Celtic, it can create a great, non-stop atmosphere for 90+ minutes and you can't ask for more than that...


While you're here..

Did you know we now have a podcast? Every other week Along Come Norwich co-founders Andrew Lawn and Jon Punt are joined by our host, Tom Parsley and a special guest to chew the fat over City. Give us a listen and then, when you love it, subscribe.

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