January 1, 2019. Thousands of Evertonians crawl out of bed and into Goodison Park, heads still sore from new year celebrations the night before, only to watch the Blues fall meekly to defeat against Leicester City.
Taken in isolation, the desolate, melancholic overtones pervading the Grand Old Lady that day could perhaps be forgiven; if anything, it was the most damning indictment of New Year’s Day continuing to be included in the fixture list. The concern, though, is it made for an all too familiar story among the home faithful.
Indeed, while a fair portion of fans bemoaned a lack of ambition about Everton only revealing a 52,000-seater ground at Bramley-Moore Dock last month, a far more crucial question regarding atmosphere was seemingly left on the backburner for the time being.
For far too long now, Goodison has been a pale imitation of its former vibrant self, with the febrile environment it was once renowned for creating now an increasing rarity.
In fairness to Everton, it is an issue inhibiting much of modern football; certainly, at least, in England, where the gilded Premier League is now particularly regarded as being unnecessarily sanitised.
But recent visitors to Goodison would surely empathise. Far from the raucous ‘bear pit’ associated with the Blues’ home for much of the 1980s and 1990s, and for the majority of David Moyes’ tenure, the famous old stadium, like many other top-flight grounds, is now in danger of losing its identity.
It often seems that, unless the home crowd are galvanised by a sense of injustice, such as Anthony Taylor’s substandard refereeing performance in last Sunday’s 2-0 win against Bournemouth, or if they are going toe-to-toe with one of England’s elite, then Goodison bears closer resemblance to a morgue than an intimidating, cacophonous football stadium.
It is a harsh reality rendered more glaringly obvious with every groan of disdain at misplaced passes, every howl of disapproval at stray shots on goal, every period of mid-match eerie silence that lingers over Goodison.
It is a trait that is also beginning to creep into the club’s usually formidable away following; in the concourse before the defeat at Southampton yesterday, beers were drunk, songs were sung, good times were had. Then Everton take to the pitch, the mute button is pressed, and the clouds of despondency assemble again, evaporating any semblance of pre-match confidence.
On chastening days like Saturday, it seems as though Blues fans are at their happiest when their team are not playing. Essentially, though, they are simply bored, and understandably so.
Of course, there has been little on the pitch for Evertonians to be enthused by of late – 24 years without a trophy tells its own story – but loyalty is a two-way street, and as much as players have a duty to entertain their supporters, fans should take it upon themselves to encourage their side.
At last, though, an antidote to this well-documented matter appears to have arrived.
Only now, at League One club Shrewsbury Town, has the safe standing spark ignited, in an age of all-seater stadiums often devoid of any atmosphere whatsoever.
What is safe standing?
Safe standing is the means by which football fans can stand at a match without endangering themselves or those around them. It is more commonly used across Europe, especially in Germany, but some of these models are outlawed in England and Wales.
Shrewsbury’s safe standing consists of rail seats, whereby a metal frame is added on to a metal seat to form a rail of about waist-height for spectators to lean against. These seats can be locked together, or unlocked to revert the stadium back to all-seater.
A single rail seat at Shrewsbury replaces a single normal seat, so there is no risk of the area becoming overcrowded.
After meeting its fundraising target of £65,000 in October 2017, including the financial backing of fans and £20,000 donated by the club, the Shrews set about becoming the first team in England and Wales to install rail seating, the like of which is more prevalent elsewhere in Europe, such as at Borussia Dortmund, PSV Eindhoven and Celtic.
The idea, originally raised by Roger Groves and Mike Davis of the Shrewsbury Town Supporters’ Parliament, was bought into without hesitation by chief executive Brian Caldwell.
Having worked in Scotland previously with St Mirren and Ayr United, Brian had seen closely the way in which Celtic had prospered from their own project, and felt the advantages of safe standing for Shrewsbury, both short-term and long-term, made this too good an opportunity for the club to pass up.
“Having worked most of my career in Scottish football I was well aware of how successful the Celtic model had been, so was keen to look at it,” Brian says.
“I had a conversation with my chairman [Roland Wycherley], who had taken years to get planning for a new all-seater stadium, about ripping out the seats for this.
“To be fair, he backed me 100 per cent as he could see that it was something I wanted to do and supported my idea that, long-term and short-term, it would be great for the club.
“I am very proud that we achieved this as the first in the country but I am also very proud that we did it all jointly with our fans. That’s very important to me and shows football clubs, when they work closely with fans, what can be achieved together.”
Safe standing installation began in mid-May, when seats in the Salop Leisure Stand were removed to make way for the new rail seating system.
On August 4, the first day of the 2018/19 season, the safe standing section at Montgomery Waters Meadow, consisting of 555 rail seats, opened for the first time, and the club have not looked back since.
Not only have Shrewsbury proved enormous beneficiaries from becoming the first club in the country to install rail seating, but there is a real belief that they can be torchbearers for the safe standing scheme in England.
“It’s massively improved the atmosphere, so the matchday experience for all fans is better,” adds Brian.
“So many who sit in other stands have commented to me how good the atmosphere is now, so they’re enjoying it more, as well as those in the safe standing area.
“It has also been great for the club’s profile as we have had so much media attention, not just in the UK but from all over the world; we were on Brazilian TV last week, funnily enough.
“It’s showed us to be leading the way and shown as an example for other clubs. So many other fans of other clubs have commended us as the pioneers which hopefully will allow the authorities to see how well it works and allow other clubs to follow our example.”
Glyn Price, from Blue and Amber Fanzine and fellow member of the Supporters’ Parliament, helped publicise the project further to gain more funds, and feels the safe standing installation at Shrewsbury was a seminal moment for the game.
“It’s massive for English football, in my view,” says Glyn, a lifelong Salop fan.
“To be the first makes it even more special, and more so again when it was a fan-led scheme. The football club trusted its fan base and it’s been hugely rewarded. Everyone pulled together and has made the stand the envy of many across England and Wales.”
Some Evertonians might baulk at the notion that the club should follow a League One side’s model for the transition into their new stadium early next decade but, at least from the perspective of atmosphere, few have set a better example than Shrewsbury.
Gay Meadow served the Shrews for almost a century, and the three-sided terrace stadium – which Glyn says generated ‘a hell of an atmosphere’ (not least when Kevin Ratcliffe’s Salop beat Everton in the FA Cup in 2003) – initially proved a hard act to follow for Montgomery Waters Meadow, the club’s home since 2007.
Singing supporters congregated in a corner of the new stadium, but often the noise would not carry across the ground, and the lack of atmosphere, Glyn says, cost the club a number of supporters as a result: “We got used to it, but lots hated it and stopped coming as regularly as they had.”
Now, though, things are changing. Shrewsbury have just enjoyed their best campaign in a generation, reaching the final of both the EFL Trophy and the League One play-offs, with an average attendance of 6,249 their highest yet for a season in their new ground.
Meanwhile, the euphoria and optimism following the introduction of safe standing is unrelenting, despite a more arduous campaign this year.
“As time went on the team and club has continued to improve and attendances are well up now on the Gay Meadow days,” Glyn says.
“That’s what brought us to push to get standing back in an all-seater stadium. It was part of our fan heritage - standing, moving about, cheering; and now it’s back, I can see many other clubs wanting to take it on.”
The operation itself has been relatively smooth. After the club was presented with the idea more than a year-and-a-half ago, Brian, described by Glyn as ‘instrumental’ in the project, researched the topic of safe standing extensively, and helped Shrewsbury gain approval from Sports Ground Safety Authority.
The installation itself, carried out by Shropshire firm Ferco Seating Systems, only took less than three months to complete.
The club has yet to encounter any significant difficulties with its safe standing section, either. Having entered uncharted territory, extra steps have been taken to ensure the safety of supporters, such as giving each ticket holder a wristband to identify them entering and leaving the section to avoid overcrowding.
“It was a long road and a lot of work, but it was great. The work that went on between the club and the Supporters’ Parliament made sure this all went well,” says Brian.
“We had to do a lot of work behind the scenes to raise the monies and ensure the authorities were satisfied for safety. Myself, Mike and Roger were in touch with each other throughout the process; morning, afternoon and night.”
Brian is also delighted that, in its infancy, the safe standing area is running at about 75 per cent occupancy, representing roughly one-tenth of the club’s 3400 season ticket holders.
As well as the short-term gains of an improved atmosphere and matchday experience, its positioning next to the club’s family stand means safe standing will, he hopes, entice the younger generation once they grow out of attending with their parents.
With the unmitigated success of this project in mind, it begs the question; is the biggest barrier to safe standing becoming more prominent in English football a fear of past atrocities, namely the harrowing 1989 Hillsborough disaster, re-occurring?
“Reluctance is slowly going, I think. Hillsborough was a massive consideration for the club and the Supporters’ Parliament when taking this forward and Liverpool fans’ groups and the families were consulted, I believe,” says Glyn.
“As I understand it, some are still against standing, and some have seen the merits of rail standing. With rail standing, events like Hillsborough could not happen again.
“It is a highly-ticketed area, with a barrier every step of the terrace, so it has managed to avoid overcrowding. You can’t surge forward as each row of fans is blocked. It’s a technology designed to be as safe as possible.”
Brian adds: “We had support nationwide for the safe standing, including from Liverpool fans’ groups. One came out and said they supported safe standing publicly, with one of the victim’s relatives saying he hadn’t died through standing, but other reasons.
“People are standing at seats all over the country, whereas this solution means people can stand safely.”
Both Brian and Glyn have been attendees in the safe standing section this season and evidently, having lived through a time where watching football on the terraces was commonplace, the new system feels a welcome throwback to a bygone era.
“I went there for the first game when it opened versus Bradford City with my wife,” says Brian.
“I loved it; a great atmosphere, and you feel so safe with a barrier in front and behind you. I hope to experience it again soon.”
Glyn’s first visit, a 1-1 draw in an FA Cup tie with Salford City in November, left him all the more certain that Shrewsbury have pulled off a huge feat, not only for themselves but hopefully for English football on a wider scale:
“The atmosphere was great. We have a drum and flags in the area, and a growing identity. We now have two parts of the ground where atmosphere is generated, and it has hugely helped the overall atmosphere this season despite some tough times on the pitch.
“The standing areas have been replaced on a one seat for one rail standing space at a ratio of 1:1 [unlike at grounds like Dortmund, where the ratio is 2:1]. There is no increase in capacity, so the standing area is spacious.
“Even though I won’t regularly use it, it’s been a passion of mine to bring standing back to the Shrewsbury fan base, like many of our fans. Now it’s been achieved, we have a choice once again about how to attend and support our football club.
“It gives younger fans a chance to congregate in a more relaxed area like I did when growing up. It’s more social and has also improved the atmosphere, which has improved my matchday.”
Already, other clubs are following Salop’s lead. Championship high-flyers West Bromwich Albion publicised their intentions to use their ground, The Hawthorns, as a pilot scheme for safe standing in England, but unfortunately had their proposal rejected by the government in April.
Soon after Shrewsbury announced their own plans in June 2017, Northampton Town of League Two expressed their desire to replicate their model, while the new stadium of Tottenham Hotspur includes 7,500 seats which could quickly be converted into a safe standing area, with a one-to-one ratio just as at Montgomery Waters Meadow.
Great that you've seen rail seats at PSV. If you ever get the chance, I'd recommend also seeing them at BVB, Hannover, Wolfsburg etc. Those all safely do 2:1. The extra wide seats & deeper rows mean c. 30% more space per fan than you have in front of your seat @Everton now. pic.twitter.com/91Lchn9Abr— Jon Darch (@SafeStandingRS) January 9, 2019
With Everton’s relocation now fairly imminent, it may be counter-intuitive to make further developments to Goodison at this point.
Above all else, in such older grounds, it is probably infeasible to fit the sort of rail seating in place at Shrewsbury due to the height of Goodison’s terrace units.
But after it was revealed in December that Everton’s new ground has the potential to increase its capacity to up to 62,000, safe standing at Bramley-Moore Dock is a discussion those at the club must surely have, because it must not be allowed to retreat to the same lifeless aura now often plaguing Goodison.
The recent support from the Football Supporters’ Federation for Everton’s plans to build a new ground with the ability to add rail seating can only be greeted positively, too, even if there are still several hurdles to overcome before this can be realised.
With Shrewsbury having got the ball rolling, the challenge for clubs like Everton, who are in dire need of new, innovative ideas to the atmosphere problem, is now to take notice.
The current legislation on standing in football grounds states that all stadiums Premier League and Championship sides must be all-seater, and has been that way since such recommendations were made in the Taylor Report into Hillsborough.
But some expect sports minister Mims Davies to reconsider this particular ruling soon, and clubs like Shrewsbury are surely precipitating a change to the regulations.
Glyn feels it is now only a matter of time before other clubs in England follow suit, and believes safe standing is the only way to revive anaemic stadiums shrouded in apathy.
“I can see Shrewsbury being the pioneers in England,” he adds.
“Through contacts the club and the Supporters’ Parliament have made, we are aware of many schemes now that clubs want to bring forward and I suspect by 2019/20 we won’t be the only team with safe rail standing.
“The way it works at Shrewsbury will be used as test cases to the FA, the EFL and the government to prove it works and relax the restrictions further up the football pyramid.
“It’s coming, and this is the first brick in the wall.”
Our thanks to Brian and Glyn for their generosity with their time and for their invaluable contributions.