Craig Clark attended the FSF meeting with Sunderland fans, and reports back on what went down. It seems pretty clear though - 'Stand if you want' is the message Sunderland AFC officials tell fans. Just don't quote them on that.
The start of this season saw the birth of a club endorsed "singing section" based in an area of the Stadium of Light that had previously housed away fans. While the area of the ground has certainly enlivened the atmosphere on match days it has also led to clashes between stewards and fans, with disputes raging over fans' right to stand. An FSF mediated meeting between club officials and supporters went someway to clarifying the issues on both sides as all concerned looked to move forward.
What became clear from the outset of the meeting was that Sunderland AFC have - officially at least - no choice but to take an anti-standing position while operating under current legislation. However, they are also more than open to allowing fans to stand in the singing section of the ground on an unofficial basis.
The club are under pressure to enforce sitting and are also in a difficult position in terms of trying to keep several groups happy, all of whom think they are right. There are those who stand, people who pay for a seat and wish to use it, and the club itself, which is trying to appease both groups of fans whilst also operating within the rules laid out by a number of governing bodies, not least the local council.
It was news to me, a South Stand season ticket card holder, that the singing/standing area was only ever intended to be the upper section of the stand. It makes sense but it was not something I felt had ever been properly communicated until this meeting. Therein lies the major problem; communication. When the club is officially against standing, how can it inform fans that standing will be tolerated in some areas without putting individuals working for the club, or indeed the club itself, at legal risk?
From my position near the front of the South Stand upper, it's clear to see why persistent standing in the lower section is a problem, particularly when sporadic groups near the front lead to bigger groups standing further back, ultimately blocking the view of disabled fans. Several disabled fans have asked to be moved during games and up to 200 supporters who have tickets in the lower section of the stand have also requested a new seat at various times throughout the season.
I felt that disabled fans behind the lower section would suffer regardless of fans persistently standing or simply rising to their feet when the team attacks. Apparently this is not the case in the North Stand and West Stand, where wheelchairs are positioned behind seats used by carers, friends and family. It seems to me, even if the standing in the lower section of the South Stand is halted, there will be instances where disabled fans' views are blocked during matches. This is something that the club may have to reconsider in the long term.
Given the way the official advertising was coordinated by the club and with a limited number of seats at the back of the stand and some of those seats taken by sitters, it's easy to see why a number of fans have bought tickets in the lower tier expecting to be allowed to stand in what was marketed as a "vibrant singing section". This has led to confrontation between supporters and stewards and a number of complaints were made at the get-together about the style of stewarding. The argumentative approach, which has led to a number of ejections and bans was criticised by fans and must be ditched if there is to be any sort of progress.
As fans are continually told to sit in the lower section of the South Stand, they have begun to migrate further back to areas of the ground where standing is being tolerated. This leads to overcrowding, another safety issue noted by the club officials present. This simply cannot continue either. If stewards need to relax their approach, then fans also need to cooperate. At the close of the meeting, supporters who wish to stand but who are located in the lower section of the South Stand were offered the opportunity to move their season card. This offer is obviously open to anyone else who would like to locate themselves in the unofficial standing area.
Interestingly, club officials informed us that a number of fans in the South Stand upper areas had also complained about standing. They were offered the opportunity to move their seats but refused. They wanted to sit, as is their right, but also to enjoy the atmosphere generated by that part of the stadium. It seems a little unfair that on the one hand, these fans want to enjoy the atmosphere created by fans standing up while complaining that they can't see the match. Perhaps the irony is lost on them, but whatever the motives of these paying customers, the club cannot force them to move, which leaves them in a tricky position. Legally, the club has little choice but to support the fans choosing to sit, while also being keen to keep the area open to fans who want to stand. Incidentally, those fans who wanted to remain seated and enjoy the atmosphere of the South Stand were offered the opportunity to attend the meeting but refused for fear of conflicts arising. If one of these fans is reading this piece, then I'd urge you to attend any further meetings as the evening proceeded in a structured, altercation free manner where as many voices as possible were heard.
It was mentioned several times, and rightly so, that we are still in a transition period as far as this singing section goes. We are after all, only 6 months into the experiment. To expedite matters, fans need to talk to each other. If the club cannot advertise the area as a place for fans to stand relatively unchallenged, then it is up to us to spread the word. Other ideas arose, such as a visual means of segregating the area from others with the use of banners around the concourse. This is something that will almost certainly be implemented.
In the long term, if or hopefully when, all of those supporters wishing to stand can be moved into the same sections of the ground, then the club must still be seen to be attempting to do something about it. It didn't seem unreasonable that after 15 minutes or so, during a quiet spell in the game, that stewards should walk up the steps and everyone to sit down until they had finished their patrol. Once this was over, fans would be free to get back onto their feet once again.
Ultimately, fans and indeed the club and council would like to see safe standing introduced. It is something that is firmly on the agenda with the club now supporting the ongoing FSF campaign for its introduction. It is encouraging to see that we are one of just three Premier League clubs on board with the idea in an official capacity. As things stand, the city council is against standing in an all seated stadium but is supportive of the safe standing initiative.
The meeting concluded as it had proceeded; amicably.. Compromise and dialogue are the key to progress and hopefully the rest of this season and the start of next will see an atmospheric South Stand no longer marred by the sights of stewards and fans clashing. The message is clear, stand if you want, but do it on the club's terms