Chelsea Should Be First EPL Club to Introduce "Safe Standing" for Fans

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Chelsea Should Be First EPL Club to Introduce
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Since Roman Abramovich took control of Chelsea FC in 2003 the Russian billionaire has been looking to increase the match-day capacity at Stamford Bridge from the current 41,800 maximum. Plans to move to the Earls Court Exhibition site and Battersea Power Station have been thwarted by property developers and the Blues will need to find a solution to continue competing at the very top.

The current site in SW6 is set in approximately 13 acres of prime West London real estate. Surrounded by residential blocks and train lines on three sides, expanding the current stadium presents a multitude of problems.

Any expansion to the East Stand would involve cantilevering the upper tier over the railway line, a hugely expensive engineering feat. The Shed End backs onto the Chelsea Village hotel and apartments and any expansion there would wipe out those revenue streams for Chelsea PLC. With the West Stand at its maximum capacity, the only viable expansion site would be the Matthew Harding stand.

Tom Shaw/Getty Images
Stamford Bridge from the air. The stands, clockwise from the top are: The West Stand, The Matthew Harding Stand, The East Stand and the Shed End.

As the average Premier League attendance at Stamford Bridge is 41,792 it is imperative that the safety of the supporters is taken into account. At the moment, the only exit from the Stamford Bridge site is on to the Fulham Road and fans in the Matthew Harding have to walk the entire length of the stadium to reach this exit. 

Stadium safety has been debated in football since the tragic Hillsborough disaster of 1989 which claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool fans. It was suggested at the time that the supporters were to blame and their unruly behaviour caused the ensuing crush.

However, subsequent reports have outed these claims as the deplorable lies that they were, as South Yorkshire Police attempted to cover up their shamefully inadequate policing, and crowd control that focused on stopping hooliganism rather than prioritising safety.

A summary of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report can be found here whilst the original report into the disaster headed by Lord Justice Taylor can be found here.

Crowd violence and hooliganism were rife in European football in the 1980s and the Conservative government in Britain, headed by Margaret Thatcher, made eliminating this blight on the sport a priority.

Indeed in his report Lord Taylor acknowledged that "While there is no panacea that will achieve total safety and cure all problems of behaviour and crowd control, seating does more to achieve these objectives than any other single measure."

The remit of the original inquiry, and the subsequent independent review, was not to find a cure for hooliganism. The inquiries were supposed to discover how the deaths of 96 football fans innocently attending an FA Cup semifinal could have been prevented. 

Terracing in days of old was badly managed and half-hearted attempts at crush barriers regularly failed. Stewarding was geared towards preventing trouble and emergency exit strategies were an afterthought. This is not the case today.

The German Bundesliga allows standing in designated areas in a safe, controlled environment. Rail seats allow two rows of fans to stand between them and have seats built in to satisfy UEFA requirements for European competition.

This has a huge impact on the atmosphere at games. The Borussia Dortmund "Yellow Wall" of 25,000 standing fans has received worldwide attention for the support it generates for the team and it offers fans a cheaper alternative ticket price.

Despite FA, Premier League and individual ground regulations prohibiting it, standing is still prevalent amongst fans across the English top-flight. Matchday programs remind fans that they must remain seated except at "times of excitement."

What constitutes a "time of excitement" is unclear. At the recent Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Chelsea, stewards appeared at the front of the Shed End immediately after kick-off and began imploring fans to sit down. They were back again before the end of the first half urging Chelsea supporters to take their seats while their team was attacking from a corner.

Standing in a seating area is unsafe and causes distress for those who are unwilling or unable to stand to watch the match. With a significant number of supporters wanting to literally stand behind their team it would make sense to provide a safe area for them to do so where they will not disturb those who want to sit down.

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Stamford Bridge is the perfect place to introduce safe standing to the Premier League. The Shed End Lower and Matthew Harding Lower would become standing areas with fans assigned zones within the barriers, relating to where their current season tickets are. The increased capacity would allow supporters from other parts of the stadium to move to the standing areas if they wanted to, freeing up space for those fans who want to sit in the East or West stands.

The only issue with increasing the capacity in the Matthew Harding stand is the restricted access away from the stadium. However, a footbridge over the railway leading to Brompton Park Crescent combined with an exit in the existing fence at the opposite corner of the stand would allow fans to reach the open space of Brompton Park quickly and safely in the event of an emergency.

The demand for tickets to Brentford away in the FA Cup suggests that there are a lot of Chelsea supporters who want to stand, and the club could go a long way to repairing the battered relationship between the two parties by taking this issue seriously and joining Aston Villa, Swansea City and Sunderland in backing the Football Supporters' Federation Safe Standing campaign.

If you would like more information on the campaign as a whole you can follow @The_FSF on Twitter or visit their website. You can follow me on Twitter too @agirlintheshed

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