Ironically, English football is arguably facing its biggest crisis since the 1980s.
Well, not a crisis as such. Of course, in the ‘80s, hooliganism was rife to the point where attending a football match was almost deemed unsafe. Attendances were spiralling downwards and, on April 15 1989, football in this country hit its lowest low with a sickening, deafening thud.
All-seater stadiums were introduced en masse following the Taylor Report and football was changed forever, maybe even for the better.
Now though, the Premier League has a problem on its hands. Atmospheres at its stadiums are becoming increasingly quiet as it becomes clear that two thirds of its teams strive for little more than mere survival; this season, even some pockets of grounds such as The Emirates or The Etihad almost made Portman Road look as tightly-packed as an IKEA wardrobe for sardines.
How does England’s top tier prevent its bubble from bursting when two of the ‘big six’ can’t even fill their ground? How do they raise the decibels to produce the atmosphere that those international television audiences absolutely crave?
Football fans appear to have the answer and are desperate to make it a reality – especially after West Brom’s application to install safe standing next season was bafflingly rejected.
After the ruling, a spokesman for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said they had, “no plans to change [their] position and introduce standing accommodation at grounds in the top two divisions”, providing confirmation, if ever it were needed, that the government are very much in touch with the people.
Further confirmation arrived just 22 days later when on May 1 a debate on safe standing was granted in parliament, after 100,000 football supporters signed a petition asking for its application in English football.
The petition was one of just 20 ever to reach 100,000 signatures on the government website, and the eighth-fastest to move between 10 and 100,000 signatories. Safe standing is finally due to be debated in parliament on June 25.
Of course, Celtic have already had 2,900 rail seats in use since the 2016/17 season (due to coming under the jurisdiction of the Scottish parliament), while safe standing is successfully utilised throughout Europe, most noticeably in Germany where at least 10 per cent of tickets sold must be for standing areas.
The case for safe standing is a strong one, and this hasn’t gone unnoticed by Norwich City.
Last month, while the safe standing petition was gaining traction, the club tweeted a link encouraging fans to sign. Meanwhile, Managing Director Steve Stone has publicly spoken out in support of it, while local MPs from across the political spectrum (Labour’s Clive Lewis, the Lib Dems’ Norman Lamb and the Conservatives’ Chloe Smith) have lobbied the Home Office to meet them and discuss it.
Norwich fan groups such as Barclay End Norwich have also made a big push in recent years to not only introduce safe standing but improve the general atmosphere at Carrow Road, and in particular the Barclay Stand.
Thomas Markham-Uden, from Barclay End Norwich, said: “The story of our atmosphere is one shared by many clubs in the top two tiers of football in this country. Younger fans priced out of attending, vocal supporters unable to group together on match days, the proliferation of television money increasingly rendering attending football akin to a theatre, where people pay their money and want to be entertained.
“Since our inception we’ve been part of an increasingly vocal cohort of supporters groups and organisations who have championed safe standing’s introduction and have encouraged fans and MPs to educate themselves on why it would make such a positive difference.
“The fact that we’re at the stage where it is being formally debated in parliament is testament to the work that everyone involved in this campaign has put in.”
Barclay End Norwich ideally want safe standing installed across the entire Lower Barclay, a potentially pricey project. But Steve Stone believes the club could fund it using a system similar to that used to fund the club’s new academy building.
He told the EDP: “If [safe standing] did become a possibility, from a legal point of view, that [the bond scheme] is a way you could fund changing Carrow Road to make elements of it compatible for safe standing, in the same way we have looked at the academy and Colney.”
Either way, the Canaries will get a first-hand look at safe standing next season, if Shrewsbury are promoted. The Shrews, who used a crowdfunding website to raise the £65,000 required, will begin installing 550 rail seats at their New Meadow ground today.
The irony of course is that, while clubs below the second tier of English football are allowed standing areas, Shrewsbury must install the seats before they are officially promoted on June 7 (if they win the League One play-off final). Otherwise, only regular, less-safe standing will be allowed at their Shropshire ground next season.
In Norwich though, safe standing may not be enough in itself to improve the recent timid atmosphere at Carrow Road. Thomas continued: “It can act as an impetus and if it’s introduced in tandem with unreserved standing then that would be even better, but there are other positives for its introduction, such as allowing supporters the choice on whether they stand and allowing this to be done safely.
“The biggest factor that would improve atmosphere is a cultural shift to fans vocally backing their team regardless of what’s happening during the 90 minutes of play.”
Hopefully, Carrow Road will have its own Yellow Wall one day. But to have it populated with fans that back their side regardless of the team’s performance? No petition could achieve that, surely…