Argyle’s win on Saturday wasn’t the greatest game I’ve ever seen. But a win is a win, and Sarcevic’s 92nd minute pile driver to seal the deal was a very satisfying way to sign off on three points.
Unfortunately, the ‘persistent standing’ controversy once again threatened to overshadow what should have been a happy occasion at Home Park. Even before we’d got into the ground, a Tweeted photograph of stewards lined up next to Block 3 warned us that the whole tedious issue was going to elbow its way into proceedings yet again. There’s a real risk that the standing controversy will eclipse all the good stuff happening around Home Park at the moment.
For all the emotion and rhetoric surrounding this issue, the basic problem can be summed up very succinctly. While the regulations on standing at football grounds appear clear, they are not, and their interpretation and enforcement is inconsistent and illogical.
Rules on standing are ambiguous
Let’s start with the rules relating to standing. The current regulations originate with the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy, when 96 Liverpool supporters died on overcrowded terraces at an FA Cup semi-final. The Taylor report into the disaster led to the Football Supporters Act, mandating that football grounds should in future be all-seater. Soon after, however, the law was modified to apply just to the top two divisions of English football.
While these regulations are likely to change again in the future, for now Home Park has no designated standing areas and so is subject to the rules governing all-seater stadia. Argyle’s ground regulations – taken word for word from the EFL – state that: “Nobody may stand in any seating area whilst play is in progress. Persistent standing in seated areas whilst play is in progress is strictly forbidden and may result in ejection from the Ground.”
Straightforward, right? Well as with anything relating to the law, the answer is ‘yes and no’.
There are a couple of areas of potential confusion. First, contrary to what many think, standing at a football match is not an offence under criminal law, which states that football clubs must provide seats for all spectators, but does not mandate that spectators should sit in them. The rules of admission to a venue fall under civil law, and by purchasing a ticket, spectators agree to be bound by the rules of the football stadium. So standing is potentially in breach of the civil law, allowing the ejection of supporters who refuse to sit.
The law therefore leaves clubs to decide what action to take against those it deems as ‘standers’, although in reality, clubs may come under pressure from the EFL to enforce the regulations. We’ll come back to that later.
The second area of confusion relates to the definition of ‘standing’. EFL regulations state clearly that nobody may stand whilst play is in progress, but they then go on to prohibit ‘persistent standing’. That’s generally taken to mean that during ‘moments of excitement’ spectators may stand (and presumably they’re allowed to slip out to answer the call of nature during the game as well). Mediaeval philosophers used to engage in futile debates about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin; trying to interpret the rules on ‘persistent standing’ at football grounds feels a bit like that.
On the one hand then, people who say ‘the rules are clear, you can’t stand in a seating area’ are simply wrong; there’s an element of interpretation. On the other, it would be tough to argue that supporters who stand from the kick off to the final whistle are not engaging in ‘persistent standing’. So the blunt truth is that under the ground regulations, a club is entitled to throw supporters out if they do that.
Enforcement of standing rules is very uneven
The second, and probably most significant area of contention is the highly variable enforcement of the no-standing rules. Fans who are being told to sit down or risk being thrown out see away supporters at the other end of the ground standing throughout the game with impunity. They then go home to watch fans at Premier League, Championship and lower divisions doing the same thing on the EFL highlights and Match of the Day. This is guaranteed to ferment resentment and a feeling of unfairness.
At the moment, Argyle seems to be caught in a no-man’s land, reluctant to send stewards in to either home or away ends to evict persistent standers, reduced instead to appeals over the public address system and positioning stewards at the bottom of the Devonport to glower ineffectually at the Block 3 rebels. That merely creates an air of hostility without actually achieving anything.
Clubs are caught in the middle
It’s very easy to be critical of the club here, but in all fairness, they and others are caught up in the colossal mess that the EFL rules represent at the moment. For a measure of this, take a look at recent events at Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers (both in the Premier League, where rules on standing are theoretically even more robustly enforced). The clubs have recently installed ‘seats incorporating barriers’, but in a superb feat of mental gymnastics, FC Business Magazine reported that ‘they have installed seats with barriers precisely for the purpose of enhancing safety should fans in those areas consistently stand, NOT in order to create formal standing areas, which remain prohibited by the current interpretation of the government’s all-seater policy. ’ Confused? I certainly am.
Don’t forget as well that not everybody wants to stand up at football games, and the club is duty-bound to listen to complaints from those who might find their views blocked by others standing in front of them. It’s easy to say ‘if you want to sit down, don’t buy tickets in places where people stand’ but that’s not a reasonable solution. What is the club supposed to say to a supporter who has bought a ticket expecting to be able to watch the game from their seat, but finds that all they can see is a wall of backsides for 90 minutes? The spectator would probably be within their rights to demand a refund.
The bottom line is that the rules are a mess, and adherence and enforcement is inconsistent. The reality is that, in most cases, the EFL and the clubs collude to accommodate the ridiculous inconsistency of the standing rules, with blind eyes turned week in, week out across the country.
Why is Argyle taking a hard line on standing?
The big question then is why Argyle, apparently uniquely among League One and Two clubs, has chosen to take a militant stance (excuse the pun) on this issue. There are three possibilities.
The first is the EFL is telling all clubs in the lower three tiers to radically tighten up on standing. I suspect we can discount this since we would have almost certainly heard about it if the EFL was clamping down across the board. No other club appears to be engaged in the face-off with fans that we are seeing at Home Park right now, so it doesn’t look like a blanket directive from the governing body.
The second possibility is that the EFL has singled out Argyle for special attention, perhaps because the club needs a licence for the re-built Mayflower or for some other reason. If the EFL really has specifically threatened the club with financial and other penalties if supporters continue to stand, why would Argyle not say so when it has nothing to lose and everything to gain by going public? It would lend legitimacy to the club’s warnings that persistent standing could lead to fines, the refusal of a licence for the Mayflower or some other sanction, and would also divert the fans’ ire away from the club and onto the EFL.
The third is that Plymouth Argyle has decided to embark on a unilateral crusade against standing fans for reasons of its own. If that is the case, I can only wonder why the club has chosen this particular hill to die on at this moment in time. In a post-relegation season, with a new manager, a substantially new team and a new stand to fill, it would be a very peculiar strategic move to put it mildly.
As I see it then, those are the only possible explanations for the current focus on standing at Home Park, and the club now needs to come out and say which one of those is correct. Continuing to send the same message on social media and repeating it through megaphones on match days is clearly not working and serves only to damage the relationship with supporters.
Time to rethink
So where does the club go from here? Unfortunately, by setting off down this road, Argyle has made it more difficult to reach a compromise. There’s undoubtedly an element of machismo here on both sides. For its part, the club is in danger of backing itself into a corner on this issue. On the other side, the supporters feel victimised and resentful and some may react in ways that they might regret in future. Dealing with this situation now, before any more damage is done, is critical. Some individuals within the club are already being targeted, on social media and with chants during the game, which no right-thinking supporter wants to see.
If Argyle really faces the threat of significant sanctions because of the standing issue, then supporters should be told, and they need specifics. If, on the other hand, this mess is the result of a unilateral decision on the part of the club, a serious rethink is required. The supporters that do stand create a lot of the noise and atmosphere that Ryan Lowe and his players consistently praise as motivating factors on the pitch. Dealing overly harshly with them would not only be counter-productive but would seriously sour the relationship with most of the other fans as well.
It’s simply not good enough to keep repeating the same mantra that ‘you can’t stand at football matches’ because, as I hope I’ve shown, the situation is not that simple either in theory or, more importantly, in practice. Should we continue down the current route, it would only serve to undermine what Ryan Lowe and his players are trying to achieve on the pitch and what the new regime at Home Park is striving for off it in terms of fostering a stronger connection between supporters and the club. Something has got to change. And it’s got to happen soon.