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.


Sam Ricketts, Wrexham and Loyalty in Football

Sam Ricketts has left his position as manager of Wrexham AFC to join Shrewsbury Town in League One, ending the strangest managerial switch I’ve ever known as a Dragons fan.

From the news emerging on Friday night that Ricketts was close to agreeing a deal at Montgomery Waters Meadow, to the decision on Saturday morning that he wouldn’t take charge of Wrexham’s FA Cup match against Newport later that evening, it’s been a surreal story to watch unfold.

Ricketts only took charge at the Racecourse in May after the Wrexham board plucked the former Welsh international out of the Wolves academy, where he was their under-18’s coach. He went on to build upon the record-breaking defence assembled by predecessor Dean Keates – adding more creativity and control in midfield – and led Wrexham to the top of the National League table and into the second round of the FA Cup by early November.

During the same period, over the border, Shrewsbury Town were regressing from play-off finalists to relegation candidates under the guidance of John Askey. I was at Askey’s final game in charge of the Shrews – a 1-1 draw in the first round of the FA Cup at home against Salford. Following the result, large sections of the Salop faithful made it very clear that they’d seen enough from their manager and demanded he left the club. I had no idea that it would start a chain of events leading them to poach our gaffer.

Even when news first emerged that Ricketts was among the favourites to take over at Shrewsbury, I didn’t believe it would happen. It didn’t make sense for anyone. Shrewsbury had just sacked the last National League-winning manager – a task that took Askey five years to achieve at Macclesfield – while Ricketts was only four months and 20-odd games into his entire first-team career. I truly believed that one, if not both, of the parties would conclude that he’s not yet ready for the step up. How very wrong I was.

Ricketts’ departure is now the second time a Wrexham manager has left for a League One club this calendar year, following Keates’ move to his boyhood team Walsall in March. Although I felt heartbroken when he went, I understood Keates’ reasons for going. Walsall are probably the only team he loves more than Wrexham and I know it was a difficult decision for him to make. He even sent a message to the supporters saying he’d pay his club membership for life.

With Ricketts, I’m not heartbroken at all. I never really warmed to the guy other than when we beat Gateshead to top the table and he gave a double-handed celebration to the crowd. That was the only sign of passion I saw him give. Yes, he was vocal on the touchline but it felt more professional than anything emotive. His interviews were much the same. He never seemed to be as gutted about losing as I was. It frustrated me but I trusted his abilities and the progress we were making.

Now that frustration is my lasting memory of Ricketts and, in the bigger picture, reflects my feelings towards football as a whole. Loyalty is seemingly dead in the modern game and it’s not just from the managers either. I know that if Ricketts had been struggling at the bottom end of the table six months on from his appointment, in all likelihood, he would have been relieved of his duties by the club. Askey suffered that very fate having taken over at Shrewsbury in the summer and then getting sacked months later.

Sam Ricketts during his short spell at the Racecourse

Nowadays, it’s very rare to find managers with long stints at one club. A craving for instant success has been built across the footballing spectrum that’s killing the fun. Take, for instance, the so-called ‘top six’ in the Premier League. Each team wants to finish in the Champions League spots, yet there are only four places available. That means when two, inevitably, don’t make it, their season is deemed a disaster and their manager is often replaced. It’s such an unsustainable approach and there are similar scenarios happening in divisions further down.

Based on this, it’s no wonder Keates and Ricketts took the opportunity to work higher up when they had the chance. With a lot of managers sacked after a poor run of results, the threat of being forgotten about is only five or six defeats away. But how do we stop this managerial merry-go-round?

One suggestion I’ve seen from a fellow frustrated Wrexham fan, is introducing a rule where you can’t leave a position until a certain percentage of time is up on your contract – and making sure that applies to those who wish to remove a person from their job as well. So, for example, if someone signs a three-year contract, they can be guaranteed the role for 12 months. After that, it’s fair game.

It seems a shame to have to force loyalty like that but there would be more thought process in moves for everyone involved. Clubs would have to really do their research in deciding who they’d want to bring in rather than hiring stop-gaps. Meanwhile, on the flip side, a manager or player wouldn’t feel the need to jump ship so quickly if they’re guaranteed a certain amount of time at a club they’ve also thoroughly mulled over.

I’m not a legal expert so I’m not even sure if it’s possible to set this up. There would probably have to be clauses for bad behaviour or how many appearances a player makes for the first team but, in principle, I could see it working. But then again, maybe it’s more fulfilling to see a situation such as Sean Dyche’s at Burnley, where both the manager and club stick together despite the lows of relegation and the highs of reaching Europe. Either way, for a Wrexham board that’s given two managers the chance to build a successful career from scratch, it’s surely time to see their faith rewarded.

Groundhopper: Missing out on glory in North Yorkshire

“It wasn’t going to be the easiest of matchdays. With the game being played in midweek, I had to book some time off work. Meanwhile, getting back home on the cheap meant I’d have to get the first train back from York at 3:50am…”

A few people may have noticed the National League is pretty lopsided this season – and that’s not a reference to Salford City’s budget either. It’s the noticeable north-south divide when looking at the footballing map that grabs my attention. Fourteen of the 24 clubs that make up the league are located south of Milton Keynes – with five of these based in London and three sat on the English Channel coastline. Elsewhere, the likes of Gateshead, Hartlepool and Barrow pose difficult ventures in the opposite direction.

Being a Wrexham fan based in Shropshire, it’s made following the Reds trickier. Last season, we had Tranmere, Chester and Macclesfield nearby. But with two going up and one going down, the groundhopping opportunities have dried up. North Yorkshire’s Harrogate Town are our fifth-closest rivals this term and it’s for that reason that I earmarked them as an essential away day.

It wasn’t going to be the easiest of matchdays. With the game being played in midweek, I had to book some time off work. Meanwhile, getting back home on the cheap meant I’d have to get the first train back from York at 3:50am. But, thankfully, I wasn’t going to be alone. My girlfriend, Saffron, couldn’t resist seeing the mighty Reds take on fellow early season high-flyers Harrogate either, and also looked forward to exploring the historical city of York with me until the wee hours of the morning.


Away crowd

Last season, Wrexham fans were packing out away ends across the country. This year, however, they’re making them swell. We’ve already taken over 1,000 to Solihull Moors and averaged 300 at the teams in the south of England, which often makes up a third of the overall attendance.

At Harrogate’s CNG Stadium, there were 700 of us behind the goal – a figure I’m sure would have been more if the game had landed on a weekend. But it’s still a very impressive turnout, especially for a midweek encounter and on the back of a 3-0 defeat in our previous game at Sutton United.

Wrexham supporters were in a jovial mood too. They backed the team throughout and exchanged some great chants between the cluster of vocal Harrogate fans in the main stand. There was even a few verbals shared amongst themselves and the Harrogate players. All in good fun, of course, and it made the occasion a lot more enjoyable.

A good point

The home side came into the fixture on the back of a 3-0 defeat themselves – at home to table-toppers Leyton Orient. That was their first defeat of the season so far and it was easy to see why they’d done so well.

Their pressing caused Wrexham all kinds of problems in the opening exchanges. We couldn’t string any passes together. The team in yellow and black were like wasps, buzzing around us whenever we were in possession and forcing us to make mistakes.

Matters weren’t helped by the referee either. Some of the decisions he gave were questionable but it was the ones he didn’t give that were unbelievable. Dominic Knowles, in particular, took out Shaun Pearson every time he jumped to head the ball. I wasn’t surprised to later learn Knowles had 39 fouls to his name already this season – 20 more than any other Harrogate player! Clearly the referee saw him in a different light to his fellow officials.

Things did eventually settle down, both in terms of action and dodgy decisions. Then Wrexham actually turned the screw in the second half and should have won the game. Harrogate had goalkeeper James Belshaw to thank for saving a number of clear-cut chances. But it was still a good point against a promotion rival.


Fondop miss(es)

Mike Fondop-Talom was an absolute revelation at the beginning of this season. Five goals in six games put him amongst the division’s top goalscorers and helped us achieve our best ever start to a National League campaign. But after netting a beautiful chip against Bromley last month, ‘Big Mike’ has found the goals harder to rack up and the bench more of a familiar surrounding.

He did return to the starting line-up in North Yorkshire and looked the most threatening player on the pitch. However, there were a number of opportunities that he could have done better with, including a miss from Paul Rutherford’s cross that was begging to be put away. Being right behind the goal, I was just waiting to see the net bulge. It was agonising to see the ball go wide instead.

That wasn’t the only chance he spurned either. Wrexham’s number nine was twice put through on goal but his shots found the gloves of the on-rushing Belshaw. The Harrogate stopper received the man-of-the-match award at the end of the game having saved a further effort from Luke Summerfield’s free-kick, but I feel like Fondop missed the chance for us to take a massive three points home.


I travelled to the CNG Stadium expecting to see a physical team that used their artificial surface to slow the game down, soak up pressure and hit deadly counters. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Harrogate are a very good attacking side that pass remarkably well on an unpredictable 4G terrain. The first half an hour really put us on the ropes and if we didn’t have such defensive cover in our team – like the holding midfielders Akil Wright and Brad Walker – then I think we could have been a couple of goals down by half-time.

We didn’t know how to handle their high-pressing tactics. But, thankfully, they dropped off their intensity and we could impose the same tactics on them in the second half. And it almost worked; a lot of mistakes were made in the final third that we should have taken full advantage of.

Having said all that, a point against a very good team isn’t bad. We’re still in the mix at the right end of the league, while we’re starting to learn and gel more on the field. I also rate Harrogate as a club. Besides the plastic pitch, their facilities are some of the best I’ve seen in non-league and their fans are a good bunch. I’d happily visit again in the future.

Best Of The Rest

Before going to Harrogate, Saffron and I met up with some friends in York. It was a chance to explore the city and go inside some of the places we wouldn’t have access to at night. Our reckoning was that we’d leave enough things to explore whilst waiting for our early train after the match.

However, things didn’t go as great as we’d hoped. York does have many beautiful landmarks and is full of history. But it’s also very expensive. York Minster, for example, costs £11 to look around and a further £6 to climb to the top. Elsewhere, the castle is £6 entry, its adjacent museum is £10 and York Museum is £7.50. Add that on to the prices we paid just to get to York and it all seemed very steep.

It meant that when Saffron and I returned to the city after the game, we had nothing left to explore. We’d walked the city walls, marvelled at the cathedral and castle, and enjoyed the museum gardens during the day. The five or so hours we spent waiting for our train were, therefore, pretty boring.

Seeing the River Ouse and the street which inspired Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley in moonlight were cool experiences. But York wasn’t big enough to go back and explore, and it left us feeling like the city had been well and truly ticked off any future itineraries.

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