Safe Standing Roadshow lead talks football stadiums, fans’ future and his beloved Union Berlin

Jon Darch, Safe Standing Roadshow lead operator, talks exclusively to Football Foyer about stadiums, fans’ future and his beloved Union Berlin.

By Danny Wyn Griffith

“Safe standing offers equality with fans of other sports,” says Jon Darch, a leading football safe standing campaigner, in an interview with Football Foyer.

“It will remove the illogical discrimination that says it’s safe to stand, for example, at rugby, but not at football. The ban never made any logical sense. It was always based on a discriminatory view of all football fans as hooligans that was rife in political circles in the 1980s. It was an ill-founded view then and is an anachronism now.

“Safe standing will also, of course, give all fans choice. For those who like to stand, it gives them a dedicated area in which to do so, configured in accordance with strict safety criteria. And for those who want to sit, or simply can’t stand for 90 minutes, it gives them the peace of mind of knowing that all the fans around them will be of a like mind and will also prefer to stay seated. Everyone wins!”

A former radio industry executive, Jon Darch (seen left in the main image) makes his living these days by translating German to English and acting as an agent for a manufacturer of stadium seats, whilst his connection to football has been deeply entrenched from a young age.

“I’ve been a supporter of Bristol City since 1967 and of Union Berlin since 2008,” he starts to explain. “I’ve also been a member of the Football Supporters Federation (now Association) for many years and a card-carrying member in absentia of Wrexham Supporters Trust, owners until any day now of Wrexham FC, having worked in Wrexham in the late eighties and developed a soft spot for the club.”

He recounts his first football memory as hearing on the radio that John Galley had scored a hat-trick on his debut for Bristol City at Huddersfield Town. That was back on 16 December 1967, whilst Jon was at a Bristol Grammar School event with his father. He recalls both being thrilled by their new centre-forward’s instant impact.

On a visit to Hannover.

Jon is the face of the Safe Standing Roadshow campaign spearheading the push for it to be introduced at all levels in English football. His passion for safe standing can be traced right back to when he used to stand on the uncovered terrace at Ashton Gate.

“That goes back to those early days of going to football with my dad,” he says. “We used to stand on the ‘Open End’ at Ashton Gate (i.e., an uncovered terrace). He made a wooden stool for me to stand on so that I could see over the heads of the men in front.

“As a teenager, I then stood on the ‘East End’ with my mates. Twenty years later, when I was taking my nephews to games in what by then was an all-seater stadium, I thought it was a great shame that they couldn’t experience that same rite of passage. And I thought that the standing ban was illogical. And I hate things that are illogical!”

Good examples of safe standing can be seen on the continent, with German football being the prime example, whilst Celtic introduced their own safe standing section in 2016. In the higher-levels of the English pyramid, however, the story is different.

“The Thatcherite all-seater policy is still in force,” he says. “It stipulates that currently some 70-odd grounds must provide only seated accommodation. Since the end of 2018, clubs governed by the policy have been allowed to install “seats incorporating barriers” as a means of enhancing safety in areas where they have an issue with persistent standing, but they are not allowed to operate such areas as formal standing areas.

“The current Government won the last election on a manifesto that included a pledge to bring in safe standing. Had it not been for Covid, that would probably have happened by now. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait too much longer. In fact, what better way for Boris and co. to show their commitment to this than to say now that safe standing will be allowed from as soon as we can have capacity crowds again.

“The safety sector is persuaded of the fact that rail seats have a “positive impact on spectator safety” and have told the Government so. It now just needs the Government to amend the all-seater policy, or permit a more nuanced interpretation of it, for clubs to be allowed to operate formally approved safe standing areas in line with safety guidelines that are ready to be put in place.”

Rail seating concept.

He hopes that as soon as fans are able to return to stadia at full capacity, clubs will be given the green light introduce safe standing. Better still, if they are told now that this will be the case, the clubs can plan ahead so that they are ready for the change.

“There is no team that doesn’t want it,” he states. “Many are actively making plans even now during the pandemic. Once the crowds are back and we’ve got the green light from Westminster, the vast majority will go ahead.

“Spurs have already installed seats incorporating barriers and Manchester United announced their intention last year to do the same. However, until the rules change, neither club is allowed to operate any area of their ground as safe standing. When the rules do change, the areas concerned will also need to be checked for compliance with any new safety regulations for standing areas that may come in.”

The situation at European competition level is slightly different. When clubs play in Europe there has to be a seat available for every fan. UEFA do not stipulate, however, that the fans must sit down.

Yet, are UEFA for or against the concept?

“Agnostic, I guess,” he starts to explain, “Rail seats were invented to satisfy their requirement that their matches be played in all-seater stadia. Rail seats do that, while enabling the areas concerned to be operated as standing areas for domestic games.

“UEFA – and FIFA too for that matter – have had no problem with this and regularly pick stadia with rail seats for some of their most prestigious games. Hamburg, Dortmund, Nuremberg, Hannover and Stuttgart, for example, were all World Cup 2006 venues and all of those grounds have rail seats.”

“Safe standing allows fans a choice,” he goes on to state. “And takes away the stain on our reputation placed there by a standing ban based on the false narrative created around the cause of Hillsborough.

“Five years from now, I would hope that by then there is no longer any such safe standing movement because it has become the accepted norm that all grounds provide a mix of seated and standing accommodation.”

Away from the safe standing campaign, Jon’s beloved Union Berlin are performing above expectation in the Bundesliga, currently placed eighth. Union gained promotion to the German top flight for the first time in the club’s history in time for the 2019–20 season.

“In short, Union’s forerunner club was founded in 1906,” he tells when asked about the history of the club.

“In its current guise, it was founded as the ‘civilian’ club in GDR East Berlin 1966; many years of unfair competition followed against the Stasi-backed other club in the east of the city (who won the league title ten years on the bounce). Then several financial crises happened post reunification, that were followed up with rescue acts by the fans; rebuilding of the stadium by the fans; rise from the 4th tier to the top flight; and next? “International”, perhaps!”

Last year saw the 100th anniversary of the club playing on the site of the current ground. The name of the stadium can be translated as ‘The Stadium next to the Old Forester’s Lodge’, and the ground is indeed on the edge of suburban woodlands, which mean that the walk to the stadium is along a muddy track through a tunnel of dark, overhanging trees.

Having previously visited the Stadion An der Alten Försterei back in 2018, I have some personal knowledge of the club, and the hard work that’s gone on behind the scenes to lift this club to the top-flight.

“Fans came to the rescue and around 2,000 individuals gave some 150,000 hours of free labour to help bring the stadium up to scratch.”

“Until 2009, the stadium was open terracing on three sides, with a puny little grandstand for about 2,000,” he describes. “Weeds were growing up through the terrace concrete, which in turn was crumbling. It was deemed inadequate for the second tier, let alone the Bundesliga.

“So, Union asked the fans – the members – what they wanted from a ‘modernised’ stadium. They said ‘standing’! So, plans were drawn up to tidy up the three terraces, give them a roof and, as phase two, to upgrade the main grandstand.”

Still there was a hitch. The club was once again short of cash. Therefore the fans came to the rescue and around 2,000 individuals gave some 150,000 hours of free labour to help bring the stadium up to scratch.

“Now we have a beautiful ground with three covered terraces and, since phase 2 was completed, a spanking new main stand. Capacity is 22,000-ish, 18,000-ish standing, and – pre-Covid – it was always sold out, so expansion is on the cards. A planning application has been submitted to expand to 37,000, with an upper tier above the three terraces. Again, largely standing. In all, in future it will be 8,000-ish seats and 28,500-ish standing – more even than at the Westfalenstadion!!”

Throughout Germany football fans are well known for achieving change in their domestic game, from kick-off times to the 50+1 rule. Might there be anything UK fans could learn from their equivalents on the continent?

“Organise, organise, organise!” he remarks. “The walk-out in protest against ticket prices on 77 minutes at Anfield a few years back organised by Spirit of Shankly and Spion Kop 1906 shows that fans do have power. But only if they organise themselves and work in unity. That’s what the German fans are so good at, and definitely what we can learn from them.

“Spouting off as a keyboard warrior is futile. Tens of thousands of fans voting with their feet in the real world, however, can move mountains!”

Find out more about Jon’s work with the Safe Standing Roadshow.


Fußballclub Union Berlin build for the future

Union Berlin, a side usually recognised as the city’s second biggest behind Hertha BSC, have growing ambitions. Ones that will see the Stadion An der Alten Försterei be given yet another face lift.

By Danny Wyn Griffith

There come occasions in life when you plan something to a tee, only for circumstances to change or for something to unexpectedly get in the way. To carry out your plans to the utmost detail, you require determination of the highest order. Compared to others, Union Berlin’s ardent support have the required trait in abundance. They also have the stories to show for it.

Back at the end of February, I visited the sublimely historic city of Berlin. On the cards was Union Berlin’s Saturday outing against SV Sandhausen at Stadion An der Alten Försterei. ‘Special’ is a word banded about too often nowadays, but the Union Berlin fan-base well and truly live up to the adjective’s meaning.

Union Berlin 2 –  1 SV Sandhausen, Stadion An der Alten Försterei

In 2004, the club faced bankruptcy and required €1.5m to avoid going out of business. Their support rose to the fore by setting up a “Bleed for Union” campaign where fans gave blood and forwarded the money to the club. Another hardened fan, Dirk Zingler, stumped up the rest. He remains their owner to this very day.

Then in 2008, Union were faced with being thrown out of 3. Liga due to their infrastructure being at breaking point. The club couldn’t afford the sums required to bring Stadion An der Alten Försterei to the required standards, yet this is when the Die Eisernen once again showed their determination and backing for the club.

2,400 fans helped modernise the stadium in less than 300 days. Overall, a majestic 140,000 hours was offered by the volunteers and Union had a fresh new home. Regardless of their own areas of expertise, these fans managed to pull off the spectacular and that season, Union Berlin rewarded their support by being crowned champions of 3. Liga and being promoted to the 2. Bundesliga where they’ve stood since.

When standing on the terraces with the Union support, the sense of togetherness is unique. They know the sacrifices they gave to the club made a true difference, as they can see it all around them in the refurbished stadium. Yet, more improvements to the Stadion An der Alten Försterei are in the offing.

Plans were announced in June 2017 to increase the capacity of their alte Forsterei from 22,012 to around 37,000 by 2020. The €38 million reconstruction work, due to begin in 2019, will mean the stadium will hold a standing capacity of 28,692.

Seating capacity, meanwhile, will be increased to more than 8,000 seats to meet German Football League requirements for top-flight football. Union want the alte Forsterei, built in 1920 and set in the mesmerising woods of Kopenick, a Berlin suburb, to “keep its character and remain unique.”

In a statement on the club’s official website at the time, president Dirk Zingler said: “It was important to us that this historic place for our club grows to meet future requirements. We want a tight stadium with standing terraces.”

FC Union Berlin fans.

Jon Darch, avid Union Berlin fan who heads the Safe Standing Roadshow in the UK, believes the club are preparing for a push for promotion.

“With the stadium currently bursting at the seams,” Jon Darch told Football Foyer, “almost always sold out at 22k and the new rule from the German Football League saying that stadia in the top flight must have at least 8,000 seats (the alte Forsterei currently has only 3,600), this expansion makes a lot of sense – given that Union naturally hope to get promotion one day.

“Given that average crowds have increased from under 10k to over 20k in less than 10 years, I don’t think there will be a problem in growing the average attendances again… at the very least, I can see the 28.5k terraces being sold out regularly, though maybe a few seats will be left unsold (at times).”

Still it’s worth bearing in mind that with extra capacity comes extra noise. This has potential to further strengthen the fortress-like atmosphere for the home side.

“Of course, as Unioner,” Jon Darch explained, “we don’t like being told by the authorities how we should enjoy our football and as standing is a core part of the club culture, the expansion will be almost exclusively additional terracing. From just over 18k standing capacity now, it will increase to 28.5k, which is 500 more than even BVB have in Dortmund!

“With 28,500 Unioner standing, I can’t see the atmosphere suffering. Hopefully we will just be even louder!”

Loudness is something the Union faithful see as the norm and, with the season just underway, they’ve sprung out of the blocks in confident fashion. Now coached by the experienced Urs Fischer, who holds two Swiss league titles and UEFA Champions League experience from his time at Basel, they seem to be laying out their ambition to knock it with the big boys of German football.

Having beaten Erzgebirge Aue 1-0 on the opening day, they earned a respectable 1-1 draw at recently relegated Köln, before disposing of Carl Zeiss Jena 4-2 in the DFB Pokal. Up next at the alte Forsterei is FC St. Pauli, who began the season in even better fashion with consecutive wins against Magdeburg and Darmstadt 98, respectively, before a disappointing exit in the DFB Pokal to Wehen Wiesbaden.

Having visited both the alte Forsterei and St Pauli’s Millerntor-Stadion back in February, I’ll be keeping a close eye on their upcoming clash. Both teams offer unique elements of fandom, bouncing atmospheres, warm welcomes and wealth of character. True patrons of German football. Teams I long to revisit again soon.

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