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Safety Advisory Groups: “Communication is half the battle”

At a national level the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA) is in regular contact with the Sports Ground Safety Authority (SGSA) which brings many benefits for supporters and the authorities.

It means that supporters have genuine input into things like the SGSA’s consultation and research into standing at football and, more recently, planning around the return of supporters to football stadiums. That has been postponed by Government but it shouldn’t take away from the efforts of the SGSA and clubs to create a safe environment for fans.

While the FSA can lead that type of work at a national level we are very keen for supporters’ groups to liaise with their local safety advisory groups (SAGs) at a local level.

SAGs provide specific advice and guidance to event organisers – such as football clubs – and usually have representatives from the local council, football club(s), police, and other emergency services. Without SAG approval major football fixtures couldn’t take place.

In recent years the SGSA has been a real advocate for getting fans onto SAGs so that a coordinated approach with multi-agency input gives event organisers the best information and understanding of football crowds. We consider supporters’ groups to be an important piece of the “multi-agency” jigsaw puzzle.

STAR work

With that in mind we thought we’d speak to a few fans’ groups who have been involved with their local SAGs to understand the benefits and, let’s be honest, time commitment and work which goes on in the background, often unnoticed.

Supporters’ Trust At Reading (STAR) have been involved in their local SAG for more than a decade so we thought it would make sense to catch up with chair Paula Martin to hear about their experiences working with the local authorities.

“STAR formed in 2002 and the first person on the SAG was Chris in about 2006 and that helped build a better relationship with the club and the SAG,” says Paula.

“I took over as chair in 2007 and joined when the SAG also got a new chair who was good, a flexible thinker. I’ve been on the SAG long enough now that I’m even onto my third SGSA representative on the SAG, Jill McCracken, who joined earlier this year.

“The standard SAG meeting would be at least three of four officers from local council, always a safety officer and stadium manager, and one or two others from the club. The police’s silver commander and supporter liaison, along with the ambulance and occasionally fire service. When London Irish played at the Madejski they’d send a rep too.”

So how much of a time commitment is it and what type of person suits being on a SAG?

“We meet three times per year but lately we’ve been having online meetings which is useful as it’s a little easier. I was self-employed when I started and I’m retired now – I think you do need to be in charge of own time to do the role.”

Paula says that she feels it did take time to get her voice “heard” but longevity brings respect and understanding if you’re making good contributions. A few years ago standing was debated and Paula felt that giving a supporters’ eye view was important and made an impact.

Paula says STAR work hard to share relevant information coming out of their SAG via regular email bulletins and, occasionally, a page in the club programme if an issue is especially pressing.

They have tried formal ways of consulting supporter views but Paula finds the response isn’t always what she hopes for – “I’ve seen eyes glaze over slightly” – so she tends to do things in a more informal way now.

Soft intelligence can provide really useful information which can be fed into the SAG – if you’ve been chatting in a concourse with your fellow fans and multiple people are making the same points then there’s clearly something to consider.

Club 1871

One positive example was the formation, with the Reading’s help and support, of the Club 1871 atmosphere group.

“We often felt like the atmosphere was being dominated by away supporters and the club also wanted to improve atmosphere so after some fan engagement meetings Club 1871 was founded,” says Paula.

“They have half the stand and it took the best part of a season to get going, at first there were only 50 in there and we took stick for it but the club have been very supportive.”

These types of decisions still require SAG consultation though as the stand features unreserved seating, which removes conflict, as supporters in that end know that atmosphere can mean the occasional burst of song while standing. As long as stairways and vomitories are kept clear then that can be managed with intelligent stewarding.

That area is also next to away supporters which, again, is an issue which the SAG has to be aware of, but as all match-goers know having visiting fans next to a noisy section of the home end can really help fire up a brilliant matchday atmosphere.

“It’s made quite a difference to the atmosphere in the whole stadium as everyone ups their game,” says Paula. “We keep it positive about our team, not slagging off the other team, and I can get that across in the SAG meeting and put the atmosphere group’s point across, while also speaking to 1871 about the discussions in the meeting.

“It might not always change minds but it can increase understanding on all sides,” says Paula. “Communication is half the battle – letting people know what is happening and why.”

  • Would you like to engage your supporters’ group with the local SAG? Contact info@thefsa.org.uk for further information.

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