Andrew RT Davies AM is the Welsh Conservative Leader and Assembly Member for South Wales Central.
“Modern football is rubbish” goes the cry. But why should politicians care, and is there anything we can do to help the situation?
Broadly speaking I sympathise with the statement. Modern football stadia bear greater resemblance to car parks than coliseums, and are devoid of atmosphere and invariably over-priced. Fans have a deeply ingrained, near tribal, loyalty to their club which makes it appallingly easy for clubs to fleece them; treating them as walking replica shirts, or barcodes.
As Conservatives we supposedly cherish the free market, espousing the virtue of choice at every opportunity – and yet for years we have deprived football fans the same choice afforded to fans of every other professional sport: the right to stand whilst watching their team.
Rare (indeed foolish) is the politician who ignores the polls. When I commissioned a poll of several thousand football supporters last year I did so expecting the vast majority to back safe standing. 94% did, and dozens of other polls report similar findings.
This week the Adam Smith Institute published a report calling for the UK government to allow safe standing in football grounds. It follows the recent inquest’s conclusion that it was police errors, not standing fans, that were responsible for the tragedy at Hillsborough Stadium in 1989.
No official report has ever concluded that standing is inherently unsafe. If it were, then fans of rugby, horse racing or boxing would be subjected to the same ban imposed on football supporters. No, the standing ban is a legacy of a different era and whilst football supporters have moved on – most of our politicians refuse to.
There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that standing is unsafe, and the current rules aren’t even being enforced which makes the current impasse all the more ludicrous.
There isn’t a football ground in the country that doesn’t currently have large numbers of supporters standing each week in all-seater areas. So it makes sense to introduce purpose-built areas for those who want to stand, reducing conflicts with safety stewards and fans who don’t want to have their view obscured by persistent standing.
Let’s face it, it would be safer than the arrangements we currently see, and it doesn’t even require legislative change. At the stroke of a pen the Minister could simply undo the prohibition on safe standing.
I have been involved in the campaign for several years, working closely with the Football Supporters Federation and the Safe Standing Roadshow, and I’m delighted to see Conservative-leaning think tanks backing the cause.
As Ben Southwood, head of research at the Adam Smith Institute, says: the standing ban is as “anachronism”.
Safe standing is a question of fairness. How can it be safe to stand at a rugby match or a concert yet somehow inherently unsafe to stand at the football – often in the same stadiums? That simple distinction has never made any sense outside of the context of social attitudes towards football supporters in the 1980s.
We wouldn’t accept that kind of discrimination against any other social group or demographic, so why accept it when it’s levelled at football fans? And why insult people’s intelligence by pretending the ban is motivated by concerns around safety?
We have an opportunity to address this discriminatory ruling which sees football fans treated in a way that fans of other sports are not.
Advances in stadium technology have made stadiums a far more safe and comfortable environment for fans of all ages, genders and backgrounds. Safe standing won’t affect that and it’s about time we started treating football fans with a bit more respect.