Man United and West Brom are rivals Sunday but allies in stadium safe standing movement
As if the fans of West Bromwich Albion, Manchester United's opponents on Sunday at Old Trafford, haven't had enough kicks while they are down.
Albion fans have watched their ageing squad, seen their best players injured, bemoaned their lack of goalscorers and had Tony Pulis and Alan Pardew, two of the most unpopular managers in their history, in charge of their team this season.
They signed Daniel Sturridge on loan for the season and hoped he'd be as successful as Romelu Lukaku was. Sturridge arrived in January from Liverpool, played 78 minutes of football, scoring no goals, and picked up a hamstring injury in February. He's been a bystander as West Brom have lost every week on the way to their imminent relegation. He's only an outside bet for a place on the bench at Old Trafford on Sunday.
On top of all that, West Brom had their proposals for a safe standing area at the Hawthorns rejected by the British government this week. The bottom-of-the-table side planned to turn 3,600 of their seats into rail seats where fans can stand during games and lean on a rail in front.
The Baggies, who had the backing of their safety advisory group which contains representatives from police, fire and ambulance services and the local authority, hoped to install them for next season when they'll almost certainly play in the Championship. There, they could meet League One promotion hopeful Shrewsbury Town, who play 42 miles to the west and whose fans reached a crowd-funded target to install rail seats in their stadium. Shrewsbury's plans were supported and passed by all the relevant authorities.
Monday's rejection of West Brom's plans led their director of operations, Mark Miles, to describe them as "surprising" and "disappointing," adding that "the all-seater policy was developed over 25 years ago and football is a very different place now."
One of the problems West Brom hoped to solve was that of persistent standing among fans. Like nearly every Premier League club, they'd looked at the 2,600 rail seats introduced at Celtic Park in 2016. Being Scottish, the Glasgow giants are not subject to the legislation affecting English clubs. Celtic's standing section works, adding atmosphere to one of football's most famous grounds, and West Brom wanted to follow.
Rejecting West Brom's plans, a spokesperson for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said: "We have no plans to change our position and introduce standing accommodation at grounds in the top two divisions covered by the all-seater policy."
Sports minister and Spurs supporter Tracey Crouch is of the opinion that those wanting safe standing areas are a small and vocal minority.
Really? Manchester United, the biggest British football club, are firmly in favour. I asked the club's managing director, Richard Arnold, what the club's current position on safe standing is.
"We support it," he replied. "We would like to implement it at Old Trafford if the legislation allowed it."
"Would you push for it?" I asked. "It would be a big deal if Manchester United pushed for it."
"We have pushed for it, but we have to fit into the environment that we're in," he told me. "We need to bring people with us like the local safety advisory group, the police, the government. We're applying constant encouragement. It will help us a lot with clarity and stewarding. My sons, aged 15 and 13, have season tickets in the Stretford End where there is a lot of standing. The eldest one is full height and can see most of the game. The younger one is peering between shoulders and not seeing that much during exciting times."
It's encouraging that Manchester United are pushing for this rather than only fan groups, and Arnold is a safety-first man. He doesn't want fans arguing with stewards over when and when they can or cannot sit down.
It's an issue which people frequently speak about at games, and on Wednesday, I posed the following question on Twitter: "Would you like to see safe standing areas introduced at top-flight English football grounds?" At the end of the day, 4,000 people had voted, 86 percent in favour, 5 percent against and 9 percent saying they were not bothered either way. The figures are similar to the results of a poll of 17,910 Liverpool supporters by the Spirit of Shankly supporter group in which 88 percent said they were in favour of safe standing.
A petition by fans to the UK government had attracted 25,000 signatures in the first 48 hours.
Safe standing works at Celtic, it works in Germany's Bundesliga, it works at rugby matches, at horse racing, concerts and boxing. United fans are in favour of it, Liverpool fans too. Manchester City are in favour while Everton have a provision for safe standing at their new stadium.
Is it the people who want to stand that are the problem, or that too many in government still view football fans with disdain? Or is the deciding factor memories of the Hillsborough disaster which for too long was conveniently blamed on dangerous over-packed terraces.
Or is it a political issue, because there's little to gain for the government which reintroduces standing? It's hardly a vote-winner, but football is a huge part of the social fabric of British life and the majority of match-going football fans want to see safe standing.
All-seater stadia were introduced as part of the Football Spectators Act of 1989, brought in following recommendations made in the Taylor Report on Hillsborough. Under it, all clubs in the top two divisions of English football must have all-seater stadiums. Clubs initially backed the act, but a quarter of a century on, views have changed. United used to be against the idea, and I spoke to Martin Edwards, the chairman at the time when Old Trafford became an all-seater.
"I've always been against standing but I've been reading about the rail seats and how they can be safe," he said. "I was dead against the return of standing, but rail seats could work. I wouldn't welcome a return to the old-style terraces."
The current executives at Old Trafford are actively in favour, while the Liberal Democrat party have pledged to allow safe standing if elected. Manchester City have more chance of losing all their remaining league games, but a cross-party group of MPs have urged the Home Secretary to review the law on safe standing.
Despite the setbacks for West Brom, change will come and it should come if that's what the bulk of football fans want.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.