Manchester United have agreed to investigate the viability of introducing a safe-standing area at Old Trafford – a move which could potentially deliver major impetus to the campaign for an alternative to seats for fans in the Premier League.
United have always opposed the introduction of safe standing on the grounds that their stadium is not equipped for it and legislation would be needed to make it possible.
But The Independent has reported that the club's new chief executive, Ed Woodward, expressed a willingness to explore the idea when supporters' representatives put it to him at a recent fans' forum. With Woodward's experience of standing at Chelmsford City, in his native Essex, being a contributing factor, the Premier League champions have now agreed to look at the logistics of altering the Old Trafford infrastructure to accommodate the increased number of supporters that a safe-standing area might bring.
The stadium exits and the passageways leading from them to the current seating areas are too narrow to allow the increased volume of fans that a safe-standing area would bring. It is the logistics of making these changes to the stadium – and presumably a cost-benefit analysis of doing so – that Woodward has agreed with supporters to put in place.
His decision to launch that initial investigation came during a discussion with supporters about ways of improving the Old Trafford atmosphere at the chief executive's meeting with fans' groups last month.
The campaign for safe seating, which has gradually been gathering pace – with Aston Villa, Cardiff, Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Swansea and Hull all giving their backing to the Football Supporters' Federation plan – is in need of the backing of one of Britain's more high-profile clubs. United's willingness to consider the idea is a significant landmark, if not a direct expression of support.
But the more fundamental hurdle for the thousands of fans who back such a notion is the requirement of new legislation overturning the parameters of the 1989 Football Spectators Act, which decreed that stadia in the two top divisions must be all-seater.
The illegality of introducing a standing area is spelt out in a letter to the FSF chairman Malcolm Clarke in 2007 from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, stating the Government cannot "repeal" orders directing the Football Licensing Authority without a change in legislation.
The feeling within Whitehall is that with the memory of the death of 96 fans at Hillsborough still so fresh and inquiries into the disaster still ongoing, an imminent change is inconceivable. It would need the Football Association and Premier League to back safe-seating and a Minister for Sport to possess the political will to drive the change through. The league is currently opposed, though a strong campaign from a majority of clubs would force a rethink, which is why a softening of United's stance is significant.
The Manchester United Supporters' Trust has been campaigning to promote a way of introducing safe seating which would not involve an increase in ground capacity: rail seats, which can be folded back for Premier League games and sold as seats for European matches. This device, by which safe seating has been reintroduced in Germany, creates one standing space per seat and would not require United to alter the stadium. But their introduction would entail United facing the cost of making alterations while fans would probably be able to pay less to occupy the standing area.
Yet there is a feeling among many clubs that football has moved on since the Taylor Report made all-seater stadia mandatory after Hillsborough.