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Could safe standing return at football matches? Meet the Suffolk fan leading the march for change

PUBLISHED: 06:00 10 June 2018 | UPDATED: 09:25 10 June 2018

Owen Riches, from Suffolk, who is campaigning for the return of safe standing at football matches in England    Picture: JOSH WARWICK

Owen Riches, from Suffolk, who is campaigning for the return of safe standing at football matches in England Picture: JOSH WARWICK

JOSH WARWICK

Meet Suffolk student and Ipswich Town season ticket holder Owen Riches, who is leading the calls for a return to safe standing at football grounds in England.

Be honest: what had you achieved by the time you turned 17? Managed a B in your French GSCE? Survived a week in Malia? Completed Grand Theft Auto on the hardest setting?

Or launched the ground-breaking campaign that could soon prompt a seismic shift in a policy that successive governments have maintained uncompromisingly for a quarter of a century?

Meet Owen Riches: the A-level student from Suffolk and Ipswich Town season ticket holder leading the march for a change in the law that would allow for the return of standing at football in England.

In January, he started a petition urging the government to think again about reversing Lord Justice Taylor’s all-seater stadia recommendation, which came after 96 Liverpool fans were killed in the horrific crush at Hillsborough in 1989.

Town fans watch the action at Portman Road. All-seater stadiums have been compulsory in English football's top two tiers since 1994    Picture: STEVE WALLERTown fans watch the action at Portman Road. All-seater stadiums have been compulsory in English football's top two tiers since 1994 Picture: STEVE WALLER

The scars of that April afternoon have remained with English football ever since and despite increasing pressure from supporters for a re-think of the law, the emotional weight of what happened in South Yorkshire had seemingly put pay to any return to standing to watch football.

Until now, that is.

“It should be down to the clubs to decide whether or not they want to have standing areas – not the government,” said Owen, who is from Elmswell and goes to Thurston College. “I believe fans should get the choice to stand safely or sit safely, one of the two.”

Despite being born after the introduction of all-seater stadia in England, Owen believes the success of safe standing in the Bundesliga and at Celtic is evidence enough that the time for change has come.

The laws on standing at football matches were changed in the wake of the Hillsborough tragedy, in which 96 fans were crushed to death    Picture: PA WireThe laws on standing at football matches were changed in the wake of the Hillsborough tragedy, in which 96 fans were crushed to death Picture: PA Wire

“Having looked at different ways I could campaign, petitioning through the government website was the best option because if you get 100,000 signatures, you get a debate.

“Initially I didn’t think I would get anywhere near 100,000 but after West Brom’s application to introduce standing was denied, things really took off.”

The campaign gathered pace in April, when Owen teamed up with a number of other safe standing advocates – and the signatures began to pile up. The petition has now been signed by more than 110,000 people, with a debate in Parliament scheduled for June 25.

The Hillsborough Family Support Group has held a recent vote on the issue, with an overwhelming majority of families voting for the ban to stay. But Owen and other fans campaign groups say that standing itself was not the cause of the disaster but the particular conditions at Hillsborough.

Before Portman Road was all-seated - the crowd during Ipswich vs Real Madrid in the UEFA Cup in September 1973.  Picture: ARCHANTBefore Portman Road was all-seated - the crowd during Ipswich vs Real Madrid in the UEFA Cup in September 1973. Picture: ARCHANT

The modern preferred mode of standing accommodation is now “rail seating”, which has rows of rails with flip-down seats closely spaced to guard against overcrowding and crushing. The campaign has grown in strength particularly since Celtic successfully installed rail seating into an area of Parkhead in 2016.

“I have been in contact with some of the Hillsborough families and those I have spoken to are in favour of safe standing. The important thing to remember is that we are talking about completely different things - safe standing has been tried in the Bundesliga and at Celtic, whereas the terraces at Hillsborough were a disaster waiting to happen.”

The truth is, supporters have never accustomed themselves to Taylor’s recommendation. They have continued to stand, at just about every top-flight match, since his report. Earlier this month, the EFL produced the results of a fan survey in partnership with the FSF, which found that 69% of 33,000 people responding wanted to stand.

However, until recently, the government refused to budge, with Sports Minister Tracey Crouch telling Parliament: “While I appreciate there is a vocal minority who want a return to standing, I don’t think they speak for the majority and I remain to be convinced of the case.”

Sports minister Tracey Crouch   Picture: Nick Ansell/PA Wire.Sports minister Tracey Crouch Picture: Nick Ansell/PA Wire.

“That did me a massive favour in generating enough of a stir for the petition to succeed,” says Owen, referring to Crouch’s ‘vocal minority’ comments.

Since then, Crouch has agreed to review the ban. Owen is optimistic his petition could soon see the reintroduction of standing at football.

“The number one priority is fans being safe at the football match,” he says. “The important thing is to remember that Hillsborough is not the same as safe standing and we need to be very careful we don’t repeat any of those mistakes ever again.

“Football has become very corporate these days. Standing could help generate the noise that is sometimes lacking from English stadia.

“It’s about fans having the choice.”

• Josh Warwick writes for football website box2boxfootball.com

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