Football: Safe standing gathering pace, but is it the panacea fans think it is?

Martin Cloake

The debate over safe standing areas in football grounds is gathering pace. The introduction of a safe standing area at Celtic’s Parkhead Stadium brought an idea to the UK, which was already implemented in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Sweden among others, into closer perspective. A growing number of people within the game and the political establishment are taking the view that arguments around enhancing spectator choice and safety mean safe standing is an idea whose time has come.

There are certainly strong arguments around safety and choice. Safe standing campaigners argue it can be safer than seats when fans are injured by falling over them in crowd surges, quoting a report carried out by Trafford Borough Council a few years ago which concluded that “passive, persistent standing behind normal seats was safer than jumping up from a seated position to celebrate a goal”. And the issue of choice is coming to the fore too, as mixing fans who want to stand with this those who don’t, or can’t, is causing tension at a number of grounds, most notably West Ham United’s new stadium.

Having the choice of whether to stand or sit would seem to be a straightforward debate, but the issue is suffused with symbolism. It’s important to understand that ahead of any possible solution, because the safe standing fans may get may not be the safe standing many think they will get.

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Watching football from the terraces was a deep-rooted tradition, but that tradition came to end for many when Lord Justice Taylor published his 1990 report into the Hillsborough disaster. One of the 76 recommendations Taylor made was that all major stadiums should be all-seated. It’s important to note at this point that Taylor did not conclude that standing was intrinsically unsafe, but the recommendation that stadia be made all-seater was the one most quickly and most enthusiastically embraced by the football authorities and the government. It’s also worth noting at this point that Taylor’s recommendation was that ALL major sports stadia should be all-seat. Only football wholeheartedly embraced the approach.

Anderlecht fans on the safe standing terraces at the stadium during the UEFA Europa League match between Anderlecht and Olympiakos FC at Constant Vanden Stock Stadium on February 18, 2016 in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo by Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images)
Anderlecht fans on the safe standing terraces at the stadium during the UEFA Europa League match between Anderlecht and Olympiakos FC at Constant Vanden Stock Stadium on February 18, 2016 in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo by Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images)

Here’s where things get more complex: Taylor’s report also called for “the fullest reassessment of policy for the game”. The Football Association responded with its Blueprint for the Future of Football. That led to the breakaway Premier League, something posited as beneficial to the development of the England team. At the press conference to launch the document, then England manager Graham Taylor revealed he’d not been consulted, and said: “I’m not totally convinced this is for the betterment of the England team. I think a lot of it is based on greed.” That report came on the back of a Henley Centre study on the game post-Taylor, commissioned by the FA, that recommended repositioning the game as “more attractive to the middle class”. This could be done, it said, “by charging more, in order to reposition the product as upmarket”.

What luck, then, that the Taylor Report had recommended knocking down the terraces and bringing in seats. Seats for which the clubs could charge more.

Now, there’s some debate about exactly how consciously the clubs used the all-seat recommendation to drive up prices, and that debate is set out in Adrian Tempany’s excellent book And The Sun Shines Now. But what is for certain is that the perception of many in football is that all-seater stadiums are the pivotal change that has shifted the old culture and led to huge price rises at the top level.

And that’s just one reason why the debate on safe standing is about more than just standing up or sitting down. The issue is also tied up with the terrible events at Hillsborough, the truth of which is only now coming out, 27 years on. Any debate on standing has inevitably led back to the events of Hillsborough, because Taylor’s recommendation came out of an investigation into what happened, and it is clear to see why it is an emotive issue for those who have been touched personally by tragedy.

Some survivors and some of the families have always held the view that standing should not be reintroduced, and that view has to be respected. But other survivors and families have objected to the linking of standing with the deaths of the 96, pointing out that it was not standing that caused the fatalities, but police mismanagement. A fact that has now been proved.

John Aldridge expressed his satisfaction after a jury ruled the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster were unlawfully killed.
John Aldridge expressed his satisfaction after a jury ruled the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster were unlawfully killed.

The conclusion of the Hillsborough Inquiry has meant, among other things, that Liverpool's fans can engage in a proper debate about standing. Spirit of Shankly, the Liverpool supporters union, decided at its recent AGM to “embark on a period of consultation and enagagement with supporters” to decide what view to take on safe standing.

The symbolism around safe standing also means, though, that what may eventually be introduced is not what some are expecting. There will be no return to the raucous terracing of the past. Each fan in a safe standing area will have a numbered seat and set position to stand in. The number of safe standing places will be proportionately low – at Celtic Park it’s 2,900 places out of the 60,832 capacity.

There has also been an assumption for some time that safe standing areas would allow more fans into the same space – some campaigners have quoted a 1.5:1 ratio – and therefore provide the opportunity to bring prices down. But current indications are the Sports Ground Safety Authority wouldn’t approve anything over 1:1. So safe standing tickets may not be cheaper than those in seats – they’re not at Celtic – with clubs also pointing to the increased stewarding and safety demands of such sections.

So standing might come back, and with it the kind of enhanced atmosphere seen at grounds in Europe and, latterly, at Celtic. But with it may come others issues – complaints that only a limited number of standing tickets are available, complaints that fans are not allowed to move freely within the area and complaints that allowing a standing area may well mean stricter enforcement of the requirement to sit in other areas.

The case is not served well when safe standing becomes a cipher for other issues, as it is in danger of doing at West Ham’s new stadium in Stratford. The issues here are more to do with the club’s poorly thought through fan migration and ticketing policies, and the realisation by fans that moving to Stratford was maybe not the great idea they were told it was, than with safe standing. West Ham chairman David Gold’s apparent enthusiasm for safe standing looks more like an attempt to deflect from his administration’s failings than a genuine conversion to the cause.

There are strong arguments in favour of safe standing – with safety, choice and enhanced atmosphere to the fore. And on those grounds it should be possible to find a way to introduce it. But fans need to be sure they are getting what they want.

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