- Celtic’s new rail seating said to have improved atmosphere at matches
- Legislative changes required before English Premier League clubs could install safe standing
- Chelsea and Tottenham to include flexibility to change to standing in new stadia
The atmosphere at Celtic Park has been electric this season – and not just because Brendan Rogers’ team are well clear at the top of the Scottish Premiership.
In the summer, the club installed a 2,975-capacity ‘safe-standing’ section in the stadium’s north-east corner, modelled on the rail seating used in countries such as Germany. It has been a 10-year journey for Celtic that has cost the club about £500,000 (€582,000/$625,000), including extensive consultations, risk assessments and discussions with the Scottish Professional Football League and Glasgow City Council. But it’s been worth it, according to the stadium’s general manager, Robin Buchanan.
“The rail seating was installed purely for safety reasons,” he says. “Around 10 years ago, the local authority told us there were safety risks caused by fans standing during matches, because of limited fall protection should they topple forwards. We identified rail seating as our preferred solution and it’s working out exactly as we thought – fans who want to stand are now safer, and those who want to sit don’t get their view blocked by other people standing up. Everyone is enjoying themselves.”
In England and Wales, eyes are turning towards the Celtic Park trial with growing interest. So could safe standing also be introduced south of the border, where it remains, as the English Premier League put it last November, “a complex and emotive topic”?
Celtic was able to install its safe-standing section because Scotland is not covered by the 1989 Football Spectators Act, introduced after the Hillsborough disaster, which led to clubs in the top two tiers of English football making their grounds all-seater. That law would almost certainly have to change before leading English clubs considered introducing rail seating.
However, the Sports Ground Safety Authority (SGSA), the government quango responsible for safety at sports venues, appears to be anticipating the introduction of rail seating. Its Green Guide, the safety ‘bible’ for sports facility operators, is currently being updated.
An SGSA spokeswoman tells SportBusiness International that the new edition will include a section on “dual purpose seating and standing areas” – in other words, rail seating. The authors of the revised guide have visited Celtic five times, Buchanan says.
In November, the English Premier League (EPL) issued a statement saying its clubs had held “initial discussions” on safe standing” but that “there was no overall consensus on the matter”. The league said it would scope out “safety, supporter, technical and legislative issues before… further discussions take place”.
Despite that caution, all 20 EPL clubs have been to see Celtic’s safe-standing area, says Buchanan, and “they’ve loved it”.
One club particularly impressed was West Bromwich Albion. Director of operations Mark Miles says: “Our approach to safety has changed in recent years to a more risk-based approach. Previously, our local authority safety certificate was very prescriptive and draconian. Now, the onus is on the football club to manage safety risks – which includes standing, because around 10 to 15 per cent of fans are now standing during games. And one option for us may be rail seating.”
Miles believes safe standing will “happen eventually in England”, assuming the relevant legislative changes occur.
“The most logical next step in the debate is for a club to run a pilot and West Bromwich Albion would definitely be interested in being that club,” he says.
Miles has identified a section of the Smethwick End at The Hawthorns as a location for a rail-seating area accommodating about 2,500 to 3,000 fans, although capacity would not increase.
“We would work with engineers to check the stand was suitable and it would be in a position that would not interfere with sightlines of seated spectators,” he says. “We would create a section for home and away fans, because safety is the issue here, and away fans mostly stand.
“The cost would not be as much as the £500,000 Celtic have spent, because they have done a lot of the donkey work.”
While West Brom is happy to advocate safe standing, other EPL clubs are more guarded.
A Chelsea spokesman said that its “rebuilt stadium would have the capability of being switched to standing in some of the lower tier, but there is no plan for standing at the moment”. He noted that “the current regulatory regime does not permit safe standing” and said “we don’t intend to campaign for a change in the law”. Chelsea is hoping that its £500m stadium rebuild project could be completed in time for the 2021-22 season.
Tottenham Hotpsur’s new stadium, which is expected to open next year, has been designed with the same flexibility. A spokesman said: “Areas of the single tier home end have been designed with safe standing in mind and will have the ability to introduce rail type seating in the tier should the legislation change.”
The one club where safe standing remains a difficult issue is Liverpool, which is still scarred by the loss of 96 of their fans at Hillsborough nearly three decades ago. The families of the victims have consistently opposed any return to standing at football matches, and the club declined to comment when approached by SportBusiness International.
However, there is a sense that – following the new inquest into the Hillsborough disaster, and its outcome – the mood is changing.
“The view from Liverpool and the Hillsborough families is understandable emotionally, but harder to follow logically,” says the Football Supporters Federation’s Jon Darch, who operates the Safe Standing Roadshow. “This isn’t about a return to the terraces of the 1980s; it’s about making it safer for the people who are standing today in all-seater grounds.
“For years, the all-seater legislation was the only tangible legacy for the families of Hillsborough disaster. Now they’ve got much more, so maybe feelings will change.”
The Liverpool fans group Spirit of Shankly recently began a consultation on safe standing and will announce its position in the summer. A poll ran by the Anfield Wrap fans website showed 83 per cent out of more than 8,000 responses in favour of Liverpool following Celtic in introducing rail seating.
Indeed, were it up to supporter groups, safe standing would certainly feature in English stadia, with fan polls even at leading clubs showing support of 80 to 90 per cent.
But it’s not, and this is an important point. “Rail seating is not about what supporters wants; it’s about safety,” Miles says. “West Bromwich Albion is not in favour of safe standing because some supporters want it, or because it will increase revenue – the capacity would stay the same if we introduced safe standing.
“This is about dealing with a safety risk, and should be seen as part of the evolving safety of the stadium. However, it may be that a better atmosphere is a by-product, as Celtic have found.”
That might influence clubs concerned about the sometimes-sterile atmosphere of EPL games, and its impact on attendances.
“We played Ross County on a Wednesday night recently and drew over 55,000,” Buchanan says. “For that kind of game a year ago, we’d have probably had around 35,000 to 40,000. I can’t say that’s all down to the safe-standing section, because the team has been doing so well. But everyone who comes to the ground this season – including our EPL visitors – agree that the atmosphere is jumping.”
Celtic’s safe-standing pilot will be fully evaluated at the end of the season, but it has already come through an ‘Old Firm’ game against local rival Rangers, and one concern – that fans in other areas might be encouraged to stand as well – has not materialised, Buchanan says.
The club has another 4,000 fans on the waiting list for its safe-standing area, though putting in more rail seats to accommodate them while maintaining sightlines from seated areas may be tricky. If they can, the atmosphere at Celtic Park could get even better.
The legal backdrop
EPL clubs have said that legislative changes would be required before they would consider introducing safe standing. But what does that mean in practice?
The legislation relating to standing at football matches in England derives from the Football Spectators Act 1989, which empowered the Secretary of State to impose all-seating requirements at “designated football matches” – which came to be the top two tiers of the sport.
VIDEO: The Safe Standing Roadshow visits Hannover 96
According to John Darch of the Safe Standing Roadshow, this means that only secondary legislation would be needed to allow leading English clubs to introduce safe standing.
“The Secretary of State has the power to add clubs to the list of those requiring all seated accommodation, as they are promoted into the top two divisions – which means the power exists to take clubs off the list as well,” he says.
Tracey Crouch, the Sports Minister, has said the government will assess its position on safe standing after reviewing the Celtic trial at the end of the season.
But would the law have to change at all?
“Clubs are only required to provide seated accommodation, and it is not a criminal offence to stand,” Darch says. “The Football League’s model set of ground regulations forbids ‘persistent standing’ in seated areas while games are in progress. But this wording is open to interpretation. And clubs must balance this with their own safety obligations towards spectators.
“Cardiff City have an entire stand where people are allowed to stand up. They arranged an independent safety report, which found that it would be neither unsafe or illegal for fans to stand during matches. As a result, the club told their local authority they would allow standing in a well-managed area of the Canton Stand, and their safety licence is issued on that basis.
“Based on Cardiff’s experience, if you took the view that a rail seat is still a seat, then the law wouldn’t need to change to allow safe standing, assuming the capacity of the stand remained the same.”
Safe standing internationally
Various forms of safe standing can now be found in 12 countries around the world.
German clubs, arguably pioneers of the concept, have tried several different systems for safe standing sections which can also revert to all-seater mode, as required for games under the jurisdiction of Uefa, football’s European governing body.
Temporary seats bolted on to conventional terraces, a somewhat laborious process, is used by clubs including Borussia Dortmund. Another system involving seats which can fold away under aluminium steps features at Hamburg SV. Rail seating has become the most common form of safe standing, and also allows for significant increases in capacity. Hannover 96’s stadium includes 3,000 rail seats in a section which can accommodate 5,700 standing fans.
In the Netherlands, Ajax is introducing a rail seating section, after the Dutch FA – whose regulations do not permit standing. – decided to allow clubs to run pilots. It will cover the entire lower south stand of the Amsterdam ArenA, though capacity will not increase.
“We think this will increase safety for our fans and might give a better atmosphere,” says Joris de Lange, safety manager at Ajax. “We do not have any plans to raise ticket prices to cover the costs of this operation.”
Perhaps surprisingly, safe standing has also found favour in the US. The new ‘soccer-specific’ stadia of Orlando City and Minnesota United will include safe standing sections, though unlike in Europe, these will not include seats, only rails; instead a clearly designated ‘space’ for each spectator will be marked on the terrace.
* Countries with rail seating: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Scotland, Sweden, Switzerland.
EXTRA: Design and construction considerations
Sports venue design and construction in the UK follows the SGSA Green Guide. However, as it does not cover rail seating (the next edition will), the project team for Celtic Park’s safe-standing area had to make their own interpretations for some of the guide’s recommendations.
The first, and most obvious consideration, was location inside the stadium. “Standing fans will block the view of seated spectators in most areas of a stadium, so rail seats need to be either in the corner (as at Celtic), behind seating, or allocated to a whole side or end,” explains Michael Burnett, managing director of Ferco Seating, which fitted the rail seating in Celtic Park.
The Green Guide recommends a maximum rake of 34 degrees for seating sections and 25 degrees for standing areas. At Celtic, the corner quadrant has a parabolic rake which starts at 21 degrees and increases to 29.5 degrees. This was considered acceptable for the rail seating.
“This guide is a legacy of traditional terraces, where the concern was to stop crushes,” Burnett says. “But if you want to fit rail seats into a previously seated area, where the rake is above 25 degrees, you could argue they are safe because there is a barrier on every row. The rail height is 900mm above the platform spectators stand on, so it is safer than steep seated sections where, if spectators are standing, their only protection from falling forward is the back of the seat in front at shin height.”
The rake means sightlines in Celtic’s safe standing area – measured by C-values, where the higher the value the greater the area of view – will be a minimum of 90 when in seated mode, and 70 when spectators are standing up, meeting the requirements of the Green Guide.
The guide’s advice for barriers is also based on traditional terraces, with resistance for loading from several rows of spectators – up to 5 kN/m on 25 degree terraces. “At Celtic, we have installed the barriers to cope with quite significant loads,” says Burnett. “In reality, with only one row of spectators pressing against the barriers, the loads will be much less. If the guidance on this was to change, we wouldn’t need to install the anchors into the concrete steps as deeply – they currently go to about 100mm.”
Celtic also fitted a vertical barrier to the side of the safe standing section, to address concerns that spectators in adjacent areas of conventional seating might migrate across into the rail seating area. The gangways here were widened, and new reinforced concrete steps installed, which meant 120 seats were lost.
Most seating areas in football stadia are built from precast concrete, and generally Burnett says the structures are strong enough to support the rail seated areas, even if capacity were to increase. In existing grounds, this is unlikely, says Burnett. “The regulations concerning sports grounds are wide ranging and include vomitories, toilets, concourses and so on – it isn’t just about how many spectators you could fit into a safe-standing area.”
Another constraint on capacity is the depth of the seating. In English grounds that have been retrofitted as all seater, this can be quite cramped. The Green Guide allows for a minimum depth of 660mm, though says it is “questionable” whether this “can now be regarded as acceptable”. For a new build, 700mm is the minimum, and 800mm is the recommended depth.
At Celtic, the seating depth is 700mm, and when the rail seat is tipped up and locked, the ‘clearway’ is 650mm. For European games, when all-seater mode is required, the seats have a depth of 280mm, leaving a clearway of 420mm.
Retrofitted safe standing areas are unlikely to allow more spectators to be accommodated. But for new build, there is more flexibility.
John Roberts, director of sports specialist AFL Architects, says: “My gut feeling is the terrace depth needs to be a minimum of 800mm. This means a safe half step can be provided, to allow maximisation of capacity, while retaining a safe clearway when seats are up. Provided the area is managed properly, a seating to standing ratio greater than 1:1 can be accommodated safely.
“We are working on the design of [English second-tier] Championship club Brentford’s new stadium, which will be all-seater, but with the capability of introducing safe standing with a capacity ratio of 1:1.5.”