By Martyn Herman
SHREWSBURY, England (Reuters) – Absent from English football’s top two tiers for nearly 30 years, it is fair to say Shrewsbury Town rarely occupy the thoughts of English football fans — but that is about to change.
On Tuesday the club from the quaint Shropshire market town became unlikely pioneers in an increasingly vocal national campaign for a return to safe standing areas at matches.
Thanks to a crowd-funding scheme with help from the club and local sponsors, what was initially a dream for the club’s ‘Supporter’s Parliament’ became a reality as Shrewsbury unveiled 500 rail seats at its 10-year-old New Meadow stadium.
The rail seats are built by local firm Ferco who installed Scottish giants Celtic’s safe standing area in 2016.
Shrewsbury are the first club in England and Wales to install rail seats which are hugely popular in Germany’s Bundesliga and in the U.S.
Unlike old-style terraces, some of which survive in England’s lower tiers, rail seats give fans the option of sitting or locking them upright and standing.
Standing is a choice followers of Premier League and Championship (second-tier) clubs have largely been denied since the 1990 Taylor Report ordered clubs in the top two tiers to convert to all-seater stadiums by 1994 in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster in which 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives in a crush during an FA Cup semi-final.
Since those dark days shiny new all-seater footballing cathedrals have sprouted across the country with comfort and safety paramount. Many, however, lament the loss of the traditional match-day atmosphere generated by fans singing on famous terraces like Liverpool’s Kop.
Old habits die hard though and Premier League fans routinely stand in seated areas, a phenomenon that safe standing campaigners claim is actually more dangerous.
Recently relegated West Bromwich Albion made that argument when they applied to install 3,000 rail seats at their Hawthorns ground as a pilot for the 2018-19 season.
Their plan was rejected by Minister for Sport Tracey Crouch in April, sparking a 100,000 signature petition which guarantees a Parliamentary debate next month.
Which makes the timing of Shrewsbury’s unveiling apt — especially as they face Rotherham United in the League One playoff final at Wembley with a place in the second-tier Championship at stake.
“The eyes of football are on Shrewsbury Town,” CEO Brian Caldwell told Reuters. “We need to make this a success because we are representing fans all over the country.”
Because it is such a long time since Shrewsbury were in the second tier the Football League will allow them to retain rail seating next season if they win on Sunday.
“How ironic if we were successful in the playoff and our first game of the season was against West Brom with us having a safe standing area and them being knocked back,” Caldwell said.
“I do believe the SGSA (Sports Ground Safety Authority) and the Government are waiting to see how it goes. They don’t want to trial it with one of the big clubs.
“Fans will come here and look on in envy at our standing area. I do believe that everyone is waiting and watching how Shrewsbury Town get on. We are a good fit to be pioneers.”
Caldwell says other clubs have contacted him about their plans and he believes safe standing lobby groups such as the Football Supporters Federation (FSF) will be galvanised.
“There are a generation of football fans that have never stood,” he said. “I believe this will help us attract a younger fan base because they enjoy standing and the atmosphere.”
Should Shrewsbury earn promotion they would not be the only Championship club featuring a standing area with Brentford’s Griffin Park boasting original terracing.
Clubs promoted into the Championship are given three years to re-model their grounds into all-seaters and despite being up for five years Brentford have been exempted because a new stadium is in the pipeline.
Yet had Scunthorpe United gone up this season they would have been forced to rip out their terracing because they had already played three seasons in the Championship.
Jon Darch of the Safe Standing Roadshow says it is a mess.
“Shrewsbury is a big milestone. It will highlight that safe standing works and how bonkers the current regulations are,” he said.
“West Brom’s application for 3,000 rail seats was based on safety. On the back of them being refused fans were up in arms. A petition went from 3,000 to 100,000 in two weeks.”
Former Labour MP and chairman of second-tier Norwich City Ed Balls will be watching developments at Shrewsbury with interest.
“Now is the time to have this debate and I think it’s rightly being led by voices within football calling for change,” he told the ‘Watchdog Live’ report.
On the field Paul Hurst’s Shrewsbury side will be looking up on Sunday but thanks to the club’s vision, fans may well be standing up safely around the country soon.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis)