The dwindling atmosphere at English football grounds conveys a disillusion shared by a strong percentage of match-goers. So Wednesday morning’s welcome news that the government would consider reintroducing terracing at top-level football matches was ample daybreak stimulation at the expense of a cup of coffee. The sports minister, Hugh Robertson, attended a meeting on Monday to discuss the issue with the Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF), as well as football and police authorities, where confirmed that he would review the evidence to suggest safe standing. But as The Guardian’s David Conn reported, the stakes are ‘extremely high to recommend a change’.
The scars of the Hillsborough disaster on April 15 1989, in which 96 Liverpool supporters died due to a human crush, remain flush on the face of English football. It prompted the Rt. Honourable Lord Justice Taylor to submit a 118-page report that suggested an overhaul in British stadia; ranging from endorsements for better toilet facilities to more bins to accommodate the foil from pies and the like. And most drastically, imploring that the authorities invoke an all-seater policy. Regardless as to whether the tragedy would have happened or not, British football was a relic as opposed to other cultures’ attitudes towards stadia and in need of an urgent revamp, as Taylor offers in the report:
“Clubs in Europe and South America have the advantage of grounds built more recently on more spacious sites and planned to meet modern conditions. Where improvements have been made to our grounds they have often been patchy and piecemeal.”
Despite not having experienced the heyday of the terraces, I’ve stood on them at lower-league grounds and while less raucous, the nostalgia is etched on the more senior faces who revel in standing, unhindered by an overzealous steward. For those yearning to stand but are forced to sit, there is only rancour. Already the debate is lively, with hitherto 77.7 per cent of pollers on The Guardian website saying ‘yes’ to standing although both Manchester clubs oppose its reintroduction and the Hillsborough Family Support Group (HFSG) issued a swift statement of scorn at any proposals by declaring: “The HFSG are totally against any form of standing whatsoever. We are absolutely against it and always will be. Our football clubs should remain all-seater stadiums.”
While unsurprising that the families who suffered gravest from the shoddy policing and insufficient stewarding in the Leppings Lane end should oppose it, their views are out-dated. Supporters descending like dominoes is a remnant of those who experienced it, and in the twenty-one years which have almost passed since Hillsborough, the infrastructure of stadia has improved immeasurably. When the City of Manchester stadium plays host to Take That in June, stewards will not be perturbed by the audience dancing in the aisles, so there’s an argument as to whether they should be when City supporters are stood. Furthermore, how is it any less safer for terracing to exist at a Football League club but not a Premier League counterpart? Even a portion of Liverpool followers have taken exception with HFSG chairman Trevor Hicks – who lost both daughters at Hillsborough – stressing the importance of not surrendering to terracing. His tale of the day’s events is heart-breaking and the ‘Justice for the 96’ is still aired fervently on the Kop, but it’s usually a standing Kop. Irrespective of the disaster, Liverpool supporters loathe the ‘sit down and shut up’ culture many clubs encourage and stand incessantly at away games and on their famous Anfield stand. Paradoxical maybe, but there is something commendably reassuring that the supporters of a club attached to two terrible disasters (Heysel in 1985 the other) venture to retain the partisan atmosphere football should be synonymous with.
A large portion of Premier League clubs supporters stand at away games and occasionally at home games, although the irony about the safety measures is that they are worse with seats. The politically-correct brigade will say that you stand at our own peril, as if those who do are football militants committing a grave offence, when in reality they are sampling and keeping alive the merits of what standing can do for ardent football. Even Taylor voiced concerns over the method of restructuring stadiums to accommodate seats when people are sat:
“This approach is itself a threat to safety. To build a seated stand over a standing area, to enlarge or divide a terrace, to rearrange exits and entrances or to modify turnstile areas – any of these measures is fraught with safety implications. Yet often such changes have been made to achieve one purpose without sufficient thought about the adverse side-effects which could result.”
Usually when you trudge or skip away from a ground having been stood, you can feel the bruises swelling on your shins and calves from knocking into the seats in front or behind you. Bouts of excitement grasp your attention so exclusively that you are oblivious to whatever pain your body will be feeling when you wake up the next morning. And though one may grimace initially when the soreness peaks, invariably they break into a smile recalling the previous day’s rollercoaster.
Understandably standing isn’t preferred by every supporter and this must be catered. Families attend football matches with increasing regularity and penalising infants is unfair. But this is where a system of equality may be deployed whereby the stands behind each goal are altered for terracing (like a Curva for avid Ultras) and a stadium’s main stands (north and south) retain their all-seater status. Taylor mused in his report that the “facilities to be expected by a standing spectator (are) depressing. It is in stark contrast to the different world, only yards away, in the Board Room and the lucrative executive boxes,” and that is the vacuum which clubs have been sucked into. Leather seats have been installed into the non-directors sections at certain clubs when once they would have been reserved for the corporate and executive attendants only. Football, in the aftermath of the Taylor report, renounced the working-class hallmarks it was previously synonymous with in favour of accommodating a plush new facet, and thereby alienating those disillusioned with the ‘prawn-sandwich’ catering. The quantity, not the quality of supporters, was prioritised.
But those who pay good money (which is increasing) to watch football should be offered the choice to either sit or stand. Take the German Bundesliga’s model for example: Bayern Munich’s quirky looking Allianz Arena is not yet six years old but has successfully implemented terracing and the club showed commendable empathy to their supporters by converting two further blocks into terracing during the 2006/07 season. These sections have also been designed so that seats can be installed should an international fixture take place. Andy Holt, assistant chief constable of South Yorkshire police, represented the Association of Chief Police Officers at the meeting, and informed the FSF that they must demonstrate that standing areas can be policed effectively and would not risk increasing disorder at matches. That’s where the FSF, already enthusiastic supporters of the defined standing areas at German grounds, may seek advice from their German counterparts in order to exemplify how successful the model is in another European country.