When the Hillsborough Independent panel announced its findings in September, there was not only an outpouring of emotion and sympathy for families and friends who had lost loved ones but a genuine feeling that English football was evolving and showing itself capable of dealing with such serious matters in a sensible way. In light of recent events surrounding the John Terry case, support (or a lack of it) for the “Kick it Out” campaign and the allegations propounded by Chelsea against Mark Clattenburg, it would be easy to come to the conclusion that this view was at best naïve and at worst, complete fantasy.
Yet while the back pages for the past week, and I dare say the coming weeks, will be dominated by debates over semantics and in depth analysis of TV footage, football does have a chance to prove itself capable of not descending into a soap opera level of farce when dealing with such emotive issues. Indeed, level headedness and emotional control will be required in vast swathes to calmly deal with the issue of safe standing.
When terracing was banned in the wake of “The Taylor Report” after Hillsborough, there was quite rightly no real opposition to the decision. Whilst Lord Taylor stated that terracing was not “intrinsically unsafe”, there was a general feeling throughout not just football but the entire nation that terracing encouraged mindless vandalism and aggressive behaviour. As the last two decades have passed with the top two divisions playing in all-seater stadia, there has been an ever growing realisation however, that perhaps terracing was not to blame for the hooligan culture of the 70’s and 80’s. Surely the squalid and dilapidated conditions in which fans watched games and their animal like treatment by the Police contributed more to create the conditions for the “English disease” to spread so devastatingly. Indeed, from 2008 to 2010, more arrests were made in all-seater stadiums in Leagues One and Two than were made in stadiums with terraces.
This realisation and a sustained campaign from the Football Supporters Federations (FSF) alongside various lobby groups has led some major clubs in England to support the idea of a trial of safe standing areas in their grounds. The most recent to do so, largely unnoticed, was Aston Villa who last week declared their support for a small trial of safe standing at Villa Park for the 2013/14 season. As mentioned earlier, the issue of terracing and safe standing is a highly emotive issue, non-more so than for those involved with the “Hillsborough Family Support Group.” Margaret Aspinall, Chairman of the group, who lost her son James in the tragic events in 1989, declared the idea “absolutely appalling.” She continued on, “People should be grateful they have seated stadiums. We don’t know how many lives have been saved because of Hillsborough.”
Mrs Aspinall and the Hillsborough Family Support Group’s position is entirely understandable. Nobody should send a loved one off to watch what is just a football game and never see them again; the pain that they must feel is unimaginable to an outsider. Yet decisions surrounding the issue of safe standing cannot be allowed to be clouded through emotion and rushing to judgements without establishing all the facts. As the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report highlighted, the much more serious issues of policing and stadium management were the main causes of the disaster and thankfully, lessons have been learned which mean that such conditions will never again exist in English football.
Now is the time to take a balanced view of the advantages and disadvantages of safe standing in the top two divisions. We look across into continental Europe and see the Bundesliga, a paradise for many English football fans who view with envy the affordable ticket pricing, fan ownership of clubs and of course, safe standing. Germany is the model usually invoked by supporters of safe standing, yet the Hillsborough Family Support Group has countered this argument. In 2011, Margaret Aspinall argued that “People always say they have standing areas in Germany, but we don’t play any part over what happens in that country – we just believe there’s no such thing as safe standing in this country.” This is a shockingly antiquated view that only helps to confirm the identity of the English football fan as someone who cannot be trusted, a stereotype one would expect such a group to be fighting. It is also a view that helps impede a balanced and well informed debate on the issue, yet illuminates why safe standing is so demonised within England.
Perhaps one explanation is the lack of knowledge over what “safe standing” actually entails. “Rail seating” which is used in Germany, is effectively rows of seating attached to crush barriers that fold simply away for games where standing is allowed or can be utilised when a game is required to be all-seater, such as in European games. The difference between “safe standing” as seen in Germany and “terracing” which invokes memories of run down, 80’s stadia with crumbling steps and crush barriers, is vital to the debate. Whilst yet another semantics debate may not be wanted, it is almost certainly required to help create a better informed, national debate.
Steps are already being taken in Parliament to support the FSF and clubs such as Villa and Peterborough United who are backing the call for trials of safe standing areas. The MP Roger Godsiff tabled an Early day motion urging the Government to introduce a pilot of safe standing following the example of the Scottish Premier League which is planning its own trial. Whilst the motion only has 8 signatures so far, the calls from many within football are growing stronger for safe standing and increased pressure on MP’s may lead to an increase in support within the Commons.
Whatever people’s personal held views are on safe standing, the use of a pilot scheme or trials in certain grounds will surely be beneficial to establish some clear facts on its safety in English football. It would be entirely unusual for English football to engage in a sensible debate devoid of emotion and overreaction but the benefit to the sport would be enormous. With the image of football in England being harmed much more greatly by the recent allegations of racism than that of diving; people within the sport have a chance to rehabilitate its image to some extent.
We shall have to wait and see whether this happens, but a frank exchange of opinions with all parties considered, truths established in a fair and open manner and a balanced judgement reached would be more than welcome by all within the sport. It is something that English football has failed to do more frequently than not in recent times.