With the takeover excitement now subsiding slightly, one topic on many fans’ minds is: What will the new ownership mean for St James’ Park? Could it mean expansion? And could safe standing help to increase the stadium’s capacity?
As a safe standing campaigner for nearly 20 years, including bringing my ‘Safe Standing Roadshow’ up to Newcastle way back in 2013, I’ve immersed myself in the ever-changing rules and regulations governing standing at football matches in England. And with six ‘early adopter’ clubs set to provide officially licensed safe standing from 1 January 2022, new rules will then come into play defining exactly what is and isn’t allowed in safe standing areas in the Premier League.
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Will they allow an increase in capacity at SJP? In the short term, no. In fact, if safe standing is implemented without careful planning, they could lead to it being reduced. In the long term, however, it may well be possible to utilise safe standing to increase the stadium’s capacity. And to do so within the existing footprint.
To understand this, let’s look across the North Sea at mainland Europe. There, in Germany especially, safe standing areas have long been configured to accommodate more than one standing fan per rail seat place. That’s done by running an extra step along the back of each seating row, so that some fans can stand on that back step, while others stand in front of them directly behind the rail. Because these areas have invariably been built from scratch, the seating rows have been designed to be very spacious, and the rail seats fitted have been very wide. This combination of wide seats, deep rows and a rear step often provides room for up to two standing fans per seat space. But that won’t be possible at SJP. At least not without major rebuilding work. And a change in the law.
The rail seat area at Celtic holds nearly 3,000 fans. It’s based strictly on one fan per seat space. However, if Celtic Park had had the room for it, the club could have built in a rear step to increase the capacity to more than 1:1, as in Germany. But that’s Scotland, and the law there allows this. The law in England doesn’t.
— True Faith: Newcastle United Fanzine and Podcast (@tfNUFC) October 15, 2021
Even when official safe standing begins in England on 1 January at the early adopter clubs, the law that applies to the 70-odd grounds governed by the all-seater policy will still say that they must provide “seated accommodation” only. What will change is that those early adopter clubs will be allowed to operate some “seated accommodation” as safe standing areas. What will not change, however, is that the clubs will still be required to provide a seat for every spectator. So, even if they had sufficient space to operate the two-step arrangement, they could not have more than one fan per seat space, as that would mean that some fans were not provided with “seated accommodation”.
In fact, the need for space is stressed so much in the new rules for safe standing areas that a lack of it could mean that Premier League clubs operating such areas may face a capacity cut! That’s because when we stand up, we’re wider than our seats. Especially on freezing winter days when we’re wearing multiple layers. When we’re standing there like Michelin men, the only way for fans on the end of the row to avoid spilling out into the aisle is for everyone to stand slightly forward or backward of each other, so that our shoulders overlap. To be able to do that, of course, the gap along the row between the seats must be sufficiently deep. The new rules say that if that gap is too narrow, fans will inevitably spill out into the aisles, so several tickets per row must be taken off sale.
But assuming that compact rail seats were installed, say, on the Gallowgate End and safe standing at a capacity of 1 fan per seat space was operated from August 2022 (by when it is likely to be allowed for all clubs), how could the club subsequently move towards a ratio of more than 1:1?
Whether that is ever possible will depend on several factors: structural and legal.
First, the law would need to no longer require SJP to provide “seated accommodation” only. To achieve that change may require lobbying. But the new owners seem to have good powers of persuasion and I’m sure they’d find allies among fellow club owners. Everton, for one, are hoping that the law will change in time for them to have a standing capacity of more than 1:1 at their new stadium, which is set to open in about three years.
On the structural front, the rows will need to be deep enough (or get re-profiled to make them so), the entrances and exits would need to be wide enough for the larger crowd, the concourses spacious enough and even the loos numerous enough to cope with added demand for a half-time pee! The rail seats fitted would also need to take up as little space as possible. Unlike under the rules applicable from 1 January, where seats with locks will not be allowed, they would also need to be lockable, as the provision for increasing capacity in this way already contained in the safety guidelines stipulates that for capacities of more than 1:1 the seats must be locked upright.
So, the answer to the question ‘Can safe standing help to increase the capacity of SJP?’, is yes, but it may take a few years and will require careful planning. In the short term it can be done with the current capacity retained, as long as sufficient room is left along each row.
While a Gallowgate End with 50% more fans than at present, all standing safely, may therefore be a dream – it’s no pipedream.
JON DARCH – Campaign for Safe-standing!