Sunday 20 January 2013

Is sanctioned standing about to return to the English top flight?

As more clubs back the Football Supporters' Federation's Safe Standing Campaign, Alex Lawson studies the history of the debate in the wake of recent revelations regarding the Hillsborough disaster and asks how likely sanctioned standing is to return to top flight British football. 

"People affected by Hillsborough will always react emotionally to issues surrounding its legacy, of course they will, and it will be a brave Sports Minister to introduce safe standing because of that," explains Football Supporters' Federation (FSF) campaign co-ordinator Peter Daykin. "Nevertheless, we believe that an unthinking opposition to standing is itself more dangerous."

The campaign for safe standing at British football stadia, spearheaded by the FSF, has a long and complex history. Extricating the events of April 15, 1989 at Hillsborough, which ultimately led to all-seater stadiums as a requirement in the top two divisions of English football, from the debate over whether standing at matches is intrinsically unsafe has been difficult. The Hillsborough Independent Panel report published in September placed the blame on negligent policing, fences and "a culture in which fans were treated like animals and demonised", Daykin claims. Events in the Leppings Lane End have become an icon of the argument against standing at matches albeit a catalyst for investment in policing, stewarding and safety management in grounds. 

The plus points, from a fan's perspective, of safe standing areas are straightforward. In both England and abroad, ticket prices for standing areas are typically lower than in seated areas making the increasingly expensive pastime more affordable. Moreover, the FSF claims, congregations stand up to sing in church and standing areas inject much-need atmosphere into grounds which have undoubtably become more sterile over the past two decades. Importantly, allowing fans the choice over whether to sit or stand would allow those who want to sit not to have to worry about their view of the pitch being blocked and those standing, of which there are thousands who realistically stand throughout matches across the country each week, from worrying about blocking other people's view. Stewards will also be relieved to reduce the amount of time spent asking supporters to sit down.

Those opposing the campaign claim standing is unsafe, incites hooliganism as people are harder to manage and track; it blocks others' view and new areas would require significant investment from clubs, a point the FSF argues should be for clubs to decide where they spend their money. 

The campaigns' objectives are simple - for a club to trial a new style of standing terraces developed in Germany, Sweden and Austria to provide a case study on which to change existing legislation. The campaign highlights three different options for removable seating, an essential as clubs competing in Europe cannot have standing areas in UEFA competitions. 

The first option is clip-on seats which fix on to every second row when they are needed and the second is foldaway seats which fit under a metal step when in standing mode, however the Football Licensing Authority, following a trip to Hamburg's AOL Arena, has deemed it impractical for these to be introduced into existing UK stadia. 

The option the FSF is throwing its weight behind is for a model used in Austria where there is a safety barrier and a seat on every row, the seats are locked upright for a standing fixture and come down for European games. The FSF, in partnership with Safe Standing Roadshow, has been touring clubs across the UK displaying the technology. 

Daykin claims those who have seen the seating have been extremely positive and a plethora of clubs including Aston Villa, Swansea City and Watford, as well as the Scottish Premier League have publicly supported the campaign. Villa have expressed an interest in safe standing as a way to reinvigorate unpopular areas of Villa Park where seating is uncomfortable and would allow them to move fans standing in steep sections of the Holte End where it's unsafe to stand. Meanwhile, Peterborough United, in their second year of the three year stretch during which standing areas need to be converted while in the Championship, face an imminent heavy investment in seats for an area in which fans have already said they will continue to stand. 

The FSF argues that the stipulation for clubs in the top two divisions to have all-seater stadiums, in section 11 of the Football Spectators Act 1989, would not require an Act of Parliament, merely an extension of rules which apply to lower league clubs. "Our argument is that legislation should only be in place if the safety risk of standing at football is demonstrably serious enough to warrant legislating against," Daykin says. The federation believes political willpower for the campaign - which has been in Parliament in a number of guises namely Early Day Motions (EDM) tabled by numerous MPs, a Private Member's Bill instigated by Don Foster MP most recently Labour MP Roger Godsiff EDM - is improving but a number of broken promises from opposition over the years have left the organisation sceptical. 

If the findings of the Hillsborough report can defuse some of the stigma around standing at matches, this long-running debate may finally take a huge step towards resolution. 

Article originally appeared in issue four of the English Football Magazine

Monday 7 January 2013

How social media has ratcheted up the pressure on modern football managers

From recruiting players on Twitter to suing fans for vicious comments made online, Alex Lawson looks at how social media has changed the interaction between managers and fans

Brian Laws distanced himself from a feud between fans
and the club
"Laws-y - give us a wave! Laws-y, Laws-y give us a wave!…Aaaay!" The former Sheffield Wednesday boss Brian Laws would raise a cheery hand to the onlooking fans. At one point this, and perhaps more negative shouts from the stands, was the only interaction had with the Owls faithful with the former Nottingham Forest fullback and longest serving manager since Trevor Francis. 
However, Laws came close to being drawn into a bitter battle with fans over vicious calls to sack him  in an online forum in 2009. Laws says in his laughably titled new book, Laws of the Jungle, that he had always respected supporters' right to an opinion and that he was "furious" at being drawn into an attempt by chairman Kaven Walker to sue fans expressing their opinion on an online forum. 

"They didn’t like it, but my reputation was at stake. You can’t have a manager suing his club’s fans. It just doesn’t work," says Laws. “That said, I do believe the internet and fans’ forums have got out of hand. It’s a licence to publish anything whether it’s right or wrong. And yes, often it is libellous. Opinions are put out by people who remain anonymous and it seems they can say anything they like.”

Laws' revelations are disappointingly unsurprising in a period when violent and emotive language is commonplace in expressing opinions on football as passion boils over. The internet has provided a wonderful forum for fans to interact and gee each other up - check any club's Twitter hashtag at 2.50pm on a Saturday - but also a tumultuous melting pot of over the top vile hatred from the idiotic few who have now been given a voice when things go wrong.

Former Aston Villa boss Alex McLeish said, after making the controversial switch from Birmingham to Aston Villa and receiving abuse from fans, that the problem will quickly escalate. “It has grown into a monster with social networks like Twitter," he said. "I respect people’s right to free speech but if any managers and coaches wanted to read that stuff it would send them barmy. The next thing that will emerge in football is somebody will get sued for something said [on Twitter]. Whether that’s a knee-jerk reaction because the jails will be full. People are already getting arrested," he said.

Moreover, social networks like Twitter and Facebook disproportionately represents the opinions of the few. For example, when there are calls for longstanding, settled managers like Arsene Wenger to be sacked it is often reported despite the fact the vast majority of Arsenal's fans have no desire for this to happen. 

However, the development of online interaction between managers and fans is not entirely negative. Managers can address the fans in their own voice - rather than through the spin of newspaper editors or the editing of TV broadcasts - and can put across their opinions far more clearly than the staid forum of a programme note. 

Former Yeovil manager Terry Skiverton took the debate to the next level last season when he used Twitter to aid him in his work. Short of cash to scout players, Skiverton appealed to his 1,700 followers to suggest players to bring to Huish Park and said the experience had been fruitful. He said at the time: "It's not a bit of fun for me - it's serious business. I can't afford a scouting system. "I think it gives the supporters a bit of fun as well as I've had supporters go through non-league annuals, going out and watching games saying 'what about this player?"

Of course, there are still the traditionalists, none more so than media-unfriendly Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson who last year issued his fans an old fashioned letter on the turnstile to appeal for respect to Liverpool fans mourning the Hillsborough disaster. 

Whether Skiverton's idea catches on and soon managers are also appealing for advice on which players to substitute via a hashtag remains to be seen. For now managers avoiding a slanging match with fans and supporters shying away from derogatory language about their beloved team's boss online must remain the goal.