End of the season reflections

Rick Riding, SGSA Interim Chief Executive

Now the season is closed it gives us a chance to reflect on the highlights of the last 10 months, share the challenges clubs have faced and the good practice we have seen around the country.

When the football community comes together as it did to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Bradford fire, it makes me proud to be part of the footballing family. Putting rivalries aside, fans, players and referees stood together and remembered those that lost their lives in the terrible tragedy at Bradford, 30 years ago.

Thankfully much has changed since then and 30 years on, the UK has some of the safest sports grounds in the world. And it’s down to the commitment and passion of all the professionals who work to ensure fans have a safe and enjoyable experience going to the game. 

The SGSA holds a unique position in the world of spectator safety. With an ethos of sharing good practice and learning from each other, we recognise how we are all safer together when we work together.

With hundreds of matches played this season and over 35 million spectators going to games at clubs throughout England and Wales, there has been some amazing moments both on and off the pitch.

A personal highlight came for me this year on 24 May. Whilst in my day job I go to stadiums to look at the safety operation, that day I was sitting in the stand at play off finals willing my team to success. As a passionate Preston North End fan I’d been here before, but sun was shining and the team pulled together to deliver an outstanding result 4 – 0, ending a run of 9 play off battles to move up the Championship. It doesn’t get better than that.

The joy of the FA Cup is the opportunity for small clubs to champion over the big and we’ve seen some exciting challenges this season and Bradford City beating Chelsea 4 -2 was one of them.

Hosting any match at a sports ground is a challenge and managing the safety of fans whilst ensuring they have a good experience is a juggling act. No more than when a top club meets with a smaller one. Early in March, staff at Cambridge United were faced with planning for the biggest game seen at the Abbey stadium since the 1980s. The match was being eagerly anticipated by fans from both teams and the whole city was buzzing with expectation. Meticulous planning and working as a team was the message that Cambridge’s Safety Officer Ian Darler wants to share.

Ian worked closely with his counterpart at Manchester United in the run up to game. Ian says “He provided valuable insight and support as well as a number of stewards who were valuable in assisting when a large group of fans broke through steward and police lines and charged the turnstiles. It was a really busy night, but everyone pulled together and did a very professional job, it demonstrated how important working as a team is.” (Find out more)

We saw an excellent example of engaging fans when representatives from Liverpool and Everton supporter groups met with the Council’s Ground Safety Advisory Group (GSAG) to discuss specific issues around derby fixtures. The GSAG took on board the comments and suggestions from the representatives and developed a communication strategy to improve the situation around arrival times working together for the benefit of every football supporter. (Full story)

Since Katrien Meire took over at Charlton Athletic last year, the club has invested in improving the facilities for fans with improved toilets and decoration as well as a new pitch. “Health and Safety of fans is the most important and we are investing in improving the facilities for the fans” said Katrien when she spoke at the SGSA conference earlier this year. 

Image of Charlton Athletic ground

Segregation of fans is always a challenge and often clubs face criticism over ticket allocations for away supporters. Norwich City has tried to address this problem by installing a new segregation system which is only 3 seats wide. The system which looks more attractive than netting, has integral steward seating and barriers either side to prevent mixing of fans. Andy Batley at Norwich says “The system is working well. It takes half a day to install, but it has enabled us to increase capacity and accommodate more supporters. Opposing fans are closer together but the barriers have been fully tested and passed with flying colours.”

An image of a segregation system

We’ve seen 2 new grounds opening this season both built to Green Guide standards – and both in the North West of England. Manchester City Football Academy opened in December last year and the new FC United of Manchester, a community football club owned and run by its members. And there have been new stands opening at Watford FC and Peterborough FC both transforming the experience for fans at these grounds.

We’re slowly seeing more Local Authorities moving to a risk-based safety certificate and earlier this year, Gillingham FC and Medway Council adopted this approach. This type of safety certification empowers clubs to identify and mitigate their own risks rather than being prescribed by the Local Authority. It ensures the initiative and responsibility lies with ground management and means the certification is tailored to meet the needs of the ground. Since 2011, 23 clubs have moved over to the new style safety certificate and a further 20 plan to do so next season.

Here at the SGSA we are firm believers in the power of collaboration to improve the safety and enjoyment of spectators at sports grounds. I’m sure that every club across the country has a story worth sharing and we’d love to hear from you.

And finally, back to the professionals that make it happen day in day out throughout the season. Without their passion and commitment to ensuring the safety of fans, going to a game would less safe and much less enjoyable. Jenny Winstanley, Director of Operations at Queens Park Rangers sums up what we are all working for “The number one priority is that the guys out there are safe and are having a good time.”

See more about the work of the SGSA https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lqZ2iv5Hf0M