“GET on the bus!”
Now supporters heading for home games at St Mary’s Stadium could be literally doing just that – for free.
Following an approach from council planners, Southampton Football Club could be on the verge of bringing back free bus travel for the thousands of fans making their way to Premier League games at the stadium.
Planning chiefs are currently in negotiations with club bosses over the reintroduction of the scheme for ticket-holders.
It comes four years after Saints were given council permission to stop providing ticketholders with free bus travel to St Mary’s from within the city in a bid to save around £150,000 in subsidies to bus companies.
The club, then in financial trouble, had claimed the scheme was unaffordable after a drop in attendances.
It was used by about 1,600 spectators at the time.
Councillors agreed to amend a binding planning agreement but it stated the scheme would be reintroduced when Saints returned to the Premier League or if sustained attendances rose above 23,000.
Now Southampton are back in the football big time with the soccer superstars of Manchester United and Chelsea coming to the south coast.
As a result, St Mary’s is a near 32,000 sell-out for every home game, and according to planning rules the free bus service should be reinstated.
A Southampton council spokesman said that club had been in “technical breach” of the rules for not introducing the scheme sooner.
But he added: “At the moment we are in negotiations. We are hopeful of a positive outcome in the next week or so.”
Any further changes to the agreement must be made by the council’s planning committee.
Council leader Richard Williams had condemned the suspension of the free bus travel when he was opposition leader as betraying objectors to the stadium and being anti-environment.
He last night said he was delighted negotiations are now working towards reinstating fans’ free bus travel.
Cllr Williams said: “We’re very pleased the scheme is being reintroduced. We want to open up a dialogue with the club over the hopeful continued success the club will have in the Premier League, and are very keen to explore whatever opportunities there are with the club to benefit them and the city.”
The scheme was put in place as part of the 1999 stadium planning permission, which modelled crowds of between 23,000 and 32,000, to ease concerns from residents about traffic congestion on match days.
Andrew Cowen, the then club director, insisted it was only a “temporary suspension” but said it was vital as the club was “fighting for its financial life”.
The club’s holding company was put into administration ten months later and its assets, including the stadium, were eventually sold in a takeover to Swiss businessman Markus Liebherr, whose estate remains the owner since his death.
No one from Southampton Football Club was available for comment.