On the 15th of April, 1989, a quiet Sheffield suburb saw one of the largest peacetime losses of life in modern British history.
Almost one hundred Liverpool fans perished in what has become known as the Hillsborough disaster. And its cause – at least, the cause most commonly associated with it – was terracing.
Football stadiums have seen vast change in a mere fifty years; not long ago, most grounds had bowls of concrete steps, with rails for support, where huge crowds of men – and women and children too, but mostly men – watched players in tight shorts sliding around muddy pitches.
Seats were a luxury, a sign of a more refined connoisseur of the game, or perhaps just someone with a bit more money. Now they’re the only option across the top two tiers and standard for most of the third and fourth.
Perhaps the greatest change football has experienced in the modern era is the change how fans are treated.
Then, fans at matches were the audience for football, a required part of the proceedings, catered for with special trains, affordable ticketing, reduced television coverage (ensuring higher attendances – for anyone wondering if that matters, take a look at the number of empty seats at Wembley for the FA Cup Final last week).
Now, fans are expected to sit meekly on uncomfortable plastic seats that hit you behind the knee when you jump up to celebrate, unable to drink alcohol within sight of the pitch, make their way home from Monday night games with work the next day and no public transport available, pay ridiculous amounts of cash for both home and away games. Football is no longer a fan’s game.
Not all of these changes are necessarily negative. There were issues with terracing – they were often over-crowded and unsafe, often uncovered, poorly built, slippery and muck-encrusted.
With this in mind, it’s perhaps surprising that attendances held up so well (although the lack of television coverage almost certainly did play a part).
But this negative condition applies more generally to football stadiums in the 1980s; decades of underinvestment meant that most grounds were dilapidated and out of date.
These perceptions of terracing, as some sort of outdated, historic relic, are not helped by the popular memory of football in the 1980s – hooliganism, ultraviolence, smoke bombs, massive police operations and the Kenilworth Road riot.
This brings us back to Hillsborough. Terracing was a useful scapegoat for police failures in Sheffield that day, placing the blame upon some of Thatcher’s biggest enemies – football fans (remember the trialled ID card scheme? No? Football fans would have needed ID cards to go to games, like some 1980s iteration of the modern Chinese state credit system) – instead of South Yorkshire Police (who had served her so well during the miners’ strike).
If terracing is so dangerous, why haven’t people died at Accrington Stanley’s Crown Ground? (No, the answer is not because nobody has heard of Accrington Stanley).
Fans are kept safe on match days by good crowd control and effective ticketing, not by the presence of a rail or a seat at their front and back. Terracing is not inherently unsafe.
Nonetheless, the Taylor Report tried to stop people standing up at football matches. And some clubs still try to stop their fans standing up, especially at home games. West Ham seem to have a particular issue with this (perhaps because their local council seems set against it).
Nonetheless, many fans continue to stand up. Some supporters are always going to stand up at football – it feels wrong to sit down on an away day.
But this is fundamentally unsafe, because seats are designed to be sat on; it’s all too easy to fall over the row of seats in front when standing, with no rail to hold onto.
Even for those who normally sit, jumping up to celebrate a goal holds its own challenges, including bruised knees. Taylor wasn’t wrong, but he wasn’t right either.
Taylor’s proclamation – fans should not stand up where it is unsafe for them to do so – could be resolved by a new invention – today’s ‘safe standing’.
The most popular design is that of ‘rail seating’ – where supporters hold onto a rail in front of a (slightly shrunk) fold up-and-down plastic seat found at every league ground in the country.
This gives clubs a chance to provide a choice of standing or seating that is, sadly, usually absent.
And, because there are seats, there is also a set space for every single supporter and consequently a set capacity for the ground as a whole.
The number of fans allowed in is no longer determined by stewards and police, it’s by how many of the available tickets are sold, making the whole experience far safer.
Stands can no longer physically fit in more supporters than they are supposed to.
Increasingly, modern stadiums are suffering from sanitisation. Home atmospheres are suffering and often the only real noise generated in by the away fans.
Part of this is stadium design – roofs are increasingly higher, to give a better view of the pitch, and swallow up much of the noise being generated; stands are far more spacious, preventing the febrile atmosphere easily created in traditional away ends.
‘Football without fans is nothing’, as the slogan goes. And it’s true – the fans are an essential part of any televised match, lending a human aspect to the dispassionate screen and well-groomed players.
So we need more noise, to deal with increasingly quiet home crowds. For this, we should go to the only English club to have trialled safe standing so far – Shrewsbury Town.
Shrewsbury Town is not known for innovation; their Gay Meadow home was a frequently-cited example of rundown British football stadiums.
But the club moved house in 2007, to the colloquially named ‘New Meadow’ (Montgomery Water Meadow for the corporately minded amongst us), and installed a section of rail seating two years ago – which club officials say has drastically improved the atmosphere.
Perhaps more importantly for cash-strapped lower league clubs, it enjoys 75% occupancy.
Other clubs are taking notice of this success – Tottenham’s new stadium included provisions for large areas of safe standing, and West Brom tried last year too.
But West Brom were denied permission to install safe standing, and Spurs got fed up of waiting and just built the stadium anyway.
The laws are different in Scotland, and top-flight Scottish club Celtic have created a safe standing section, which has quickly attracted a loud group of fans and boosted the atmosphere at Celtic Park.
It’s also proved that safe standing can work at top-level, high(er)-quality football, instead of solely in the lower leagues – and that it can work with a group of fans known for being particularly passionate (sorry, Shrewsbury).
But home affairs are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, so clubs in the top two English and Welsh leagues cannot follow their example unless the Westminster Parliament specifically follow their example.
The supposed legacy of the legal reaction to Hillsborough was that ordinary people should feel safe going to a football match.
But the current arrangements simply do not ensure security for supporters who wish to stand. It’s time to put Hillsborough to bed, finally, and admit that terracing in of itself was not the root cause of 96 football fans losing their lives.
The main factors in Hillsborough – how large groups of people behave, how those crowds are managed; and ground quality – have undoubtedly improved; whilst policing is a more debatable issue, I sincerely believe that’s got better too.
We are now in a position to return an atmosphere to modern grounds, by installing rail seating, trialling it at first, then increasing it until most grounds give an option of sitting or standing.
Some clubs will not want to, Liverpool probably foremost among them. That is understandable. But the clubs that do want them deserve the opportunity to protect fans from themselves.
Go on, Parliament. Give yourself some time off from Brexit, and pass a bill allowing safe standing across the leagues. You deserve it.
Perhaps more importantly, the fans deserve it – deserve some consideration for their needs, instead of awkward train times, overpriced ticketing and the hated VAR.
Most importantly of all, everyone concerned in football must ensure that the legacy of Hillsborough is not a negative one.
The best way of stopping dangerous standing at football matches is by giving fans safe standing instead.