Sports minister Tracey Crouch is ducking the facts on safe standing

Daniel Taylor on 15 April 2018

Over the last week I have been reminded of the time Richard Caborn was appointed sports minister and, in his first week in the job, took part in an interview with the BBC’s Clare Balding in which he was given five relatively simple questions about sporting events of the time and inadvertently showed this was not, after all, his specialist subject.

Caborn did not know Martin Johnson was captain of the British & Irish Lions rugby team that was touring Australia. He could not name a single jockey going to be at Royal Ascot or another European golfer apart from Colin Montgomerie competing in the US Open. He knew only one of the tennis players from that day’s semi-finals at Queen’s and when he was asked to name England’s cricket coach his reply was more in hope than expectation. “The Aussie?” he asked. Close. It was Duncan Fletcher, from Zimbabwe. “I did not intend to inflict complete and utter humiliation on the newly appointed minister for sport,” Balding said afterwards, “but it seems that he did that rather successfully for himself.”

Headlines included: Is this The Most Stupid Sports Minister Ever? (Daily Mirror) and Are You Dumb Enough to be Sports Minister? (Daily Mail). Caborn consoled himself by keeping in his wallet a Mail article frothing with indignation about the appointment of a foreigner as England football manager, and another from the same newspaper trumpeting the rise of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s team. He was, however, honest enough to accept what was blindingly obvious. “I made an absolute bollocks of it.”

Not just him, either. When Helen Grant took the same position in 2013, she was in trouble from the moment an interviewer from Meridian TV asked who had won the FA Cup that year. Grant did not seem to be aware of Wigan’s defeat of Manchester City. “Oh, come on – help – FA Cup holders?” She did, however, have a valiant stab at it. “Manchester United” was her answer. “Because it is my favourite club.”

Grant could not name the women’s Wimbledon champion or the captain of England’s rugby union side. She didn’t have a clue which Paralympics athlete won the most golds at London 2012 and, if she wasn’t aware of Ben Watson’s last-minute winner for Wigan, she was never likely to know what year Maidstone dropped out of the Football League. Except, as the Conservative MP for Maidstone, she might have been expected to have a rough idea. “Last year?” she asked, taking whispered advice from one of her press aides and complaining of “these difficult questions”. Not quite. It was 1992.

It is fair to say, therefore, that the bar has not been set tremendously high over the years and, if nothing else, at least Tracey Crouch has avoided falling into the same trap as some of her predecessors. Crouch is an FA-registered coach who has worked in grassroots football and describes herself as an avid supporter of Tottenham. I cannot recall too many faux pas during her three years in office and, until the last week, there wasn’t a great deal of evidence to suggest she had too much power and too little knowledge.

That was the point the issue of safe standing came on the agenda and it must have slipped her mind, perhaps, that Spurs, her own team, have designed the new White Hart Lane in the hope they can introduce the rail seats that are commonplace in mainland Europe. Presumably she wasn’t aware that Richard Arnold, the managing director of Manchester United, had confirmed he was “applying constant encouragement” for safe standing at Old Trafford, that Arsenal want the same at the Emirates, that Manchester City are equally keen and, crucially, that the position on Merseyside has shifted over the last year or so. Liverpool’s supporters have voted 88% in favour and the club have said they “will listen to the views of our fans and look to offer the best possible match-going experience in whatever form that may take place”. Everton, in turn, have included rail seats in their plans for their new stadium at Bramley Moore dock.

All of which makes it curious, to say the least, that Crouch wants us to believe “there is no desire among the top clubs to change”. Really? Chelsea have also incorporated safe standing into their plans for the new Stamford Bridge. West Brom made the formal application that has just been knocked back. Brighton, Burnley, West Ham, Crystal Palace, Huddersfield, Swansea and Watford have all publicly backed safe standing. Stoke and Southampton are privately supportive. Bournemouth say they are open-minded. Newcastle have been to see how it works at Celtic, and Leicester, perhaps, are the only club whose position is not entirely clear. They say they are keeping a watching brief.

That’s the Premier League dealt with. As for the Football League, it’s even more emphatic. The league was given a mandate by its 72 clubs as far back as 2013 to pursue safe standing and its stated policy is that supporters should be given a choice of whether to stand or have seated accommodation.

Celtic fans in the safe standing area
Celtic fans in the safe standing area. Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA

Nothing can happen, however, until the government wises up and, plainly, that isn’t going to be straightforward when it involves cutting through a hotchpotch of stubbornness, ignorance and the now-familiar parliamentary disdain for football supporters that goes back to the Spitting Image years of Margaret Thatcher insisting on being called “Sir”, Kenneth Baker morphing into a slug, Douglas Hurd talking like one of the Daleks and Colin Moynihan going by the title of Miniature of Sport.

To sum up how crackers it all is, start with the response from the Football Safety Officers’ Association asking why “the government is choosing to ignore what may prove to be a safer alternative”. The clue with safe standing is in the name: it’s safe, and certainly less likely to cause injury than the alternative of thousands of people standing behind rows of tipped-up plastic seats. It will improve atmosphere, make English football more attractive and, in theory, lead to cheaper tickets, and if Crouch has been briefed so badly she thinks it is only a “vocal minority” who want it this way perhaps she should start paying more attention and ask around among her fellow Spurs supporters. In the last four years, the surveys carried out by the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust have shown 85 to 96% in favour of a change. Arsenal’s fans have voted 96%, Everton’s 92%, Leicester’s 86%, Huddersfield’s 96% and so on. Why would the Football Supporters’ Federation spend years campaigning for it otherwise?

Add in the fact West Brom’s application was submitted by the deputy chair of the FSOA and supported by the club’s safety advisory group – including representatives of West Midlands police, the fire and ambulance services and the Sports Ground Safety Authority – and that’s a lot of people whose combined knowledge, dare it be said, might just outweigh that of the Conservative MP for Chatham and Aylesford.

Perhaps it might make a difference when a delegation from Celtic speaks to the all-party parliamentary football group in a couple of weeks about the club’s positive experiences of safe standing. Then again, I’m not so sure I would put my faith in that group, either. When Roy Hodgson was invited to Westminster before the last World Cup, one MP suggested that if he wanted to bring through younger players the Football Association should impose an age limit of 25 or under for the national team (a suggestion that would have meant keeping only nine players from the previous squad).

In the meantime, perhaps our sports minister might reflect, Sunday being the 29th anniversary of Hillsborough, that it was always a myth that standing caused that disaster. Maybe she would be decent enough to name a single club that is actively against the idea when, by my reckoning, it is possibly 92-0. Let us know how something that is acclaimed throughout the sport as a huge success in Glasgow can be illegal 120 miles south-east in Newcastle. And maybe stop to consider why so many people are starting to think that maybe it is you that is the problem now.

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