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Time for a rethink on standing at football

Posted on 1 April 2013 | 11:04am

Posting this piece, which was published on The Guardian’s Comment Is Free this morning, as I watch both home and away ends at Stamford Bridge standing, without apparent risk or inconvenience.

— To any football fan who fancies an interesting, neutral weekend away, take a look at the Bundesliga fixtures, and take a trip to Germany. For all the global hype of the English Premier League, if it is atmosphere at prices you can afford you’re after, Germany is the place.

Two very important factors have helped make their league the best-attended in Europe, with fantastic atmospheres at big matches: lower ticket prices is one; safe standing is the other. And it is time to take another look at making it happen here too.

Before the last election, I tried to get Labour to put safe standing into our manifesto. Some were keen, some were indifferent considering all the other priorities facing the country, and some were vehemently opposed.

This latter group included Andy Burnham, the sports minister at the time, which made it a non-starter. I do understand his reluctance. Burnham, an Evertonian, is from Merseyside and he has worked tirelessly on behalf of the families of those who lost their lives at Hillsborough. His was an understandable position.

However, now that a sense of justice for the 96 has finally begun to prevail, even with safety always paramount, it is possible to say the debate has shifted and can shift further.

Because the Hillsborough tragedy, which I wrote about for the Mirror Group as a journalist, was caused by fatal policing errors, flawed stadium design and fences. Standing wasn’t to blame. Standing can be done safely. And standing would make a difference for the better to football in Britain today.

I read recently that half the Football League has standing areas already or backs the Football Supporters’ Federation’s Safe Standing Campaign.

Some of the Premier League clubs get it and Aston Villa have been vocal supporters of the FSF’s Safe Standing Campaign along with Swansea City, Sunderland and the Scottish Premier League. West Ham United chairman David Gold has expressed his backing for safe standing too.

I’m pleased to say my club, Burnley, is heading in the right direction on safe standing, with chief executive Lee Hoos asking the government to permit a few small-scale trials to determine how it might work.

At our home game against Blackburn Rovers in December, the entire lower tiers of two home stands, and the whole of the away end, stood throughout the match. This happens week in, week out at many grounds across the UK and it’s about time leaders in the football industry pulled their heads out of the sand.

Yet the Premier League still won’t support safe standing and says: “Since the introduction of all-seater stadia … we have seen more diverse crowds attending Premier League matches including more women and children.”

Of course more diverse crowds are a very good thing – football shouldn’t just be a game for middle-aged white blokes. It’s a legitimate concern but I am not convinced by the Premier League’s belief that women and children would be scared off by standing areas.

The FSF’s 2012 survey was filled in by 4,000 fans, and one in every three female fans who completed it said they preferred to stand. Another third said they might do, depending on the game. And 85% of female respondents said they backed the choice to sit or stand.

In fact the underlying assumption that female fans will somehow be scared off by those boisterous boys in the standing corner is a bit patronising anyway. Plenty of women choose to stand too.

Sports minister Hugh Robertson argues that any change in legislation would require there to be “a very clear demand” from clubs and fans. I think the backing from fans is clear, both those who want to stand and those who want to sit. Both want a better atmosphere. Plenty of clubs make the right noises too, but they do not have the power.

Robertson and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport also say that there needs to be “very clear evidence that any such change meets stringent safety standards”. I don’t think anyone could possibly disagree with that. But how can clubs present “very clear evidence” if the government won’t permit a trial?

And of course there is plenty of “very clear evidence” in League One and League Two grounds every week. I have never quite got how standing is provenly safe for a League One club, but if they get promoted to the Championship, suddenly it is unsafe. Added to which, I couldn’t help noticing two ends standing when Peterborough played Burnley this year. Surely something is either safe or it isn’t.

Aston Villa say they would love to trial rail seated safe standing areas, and West Midlands police’s matchday commander agrees. Fans at the club want it too, but everyone’s hands are tied until the government gives the nod.

And remember: it is a coalition government. And one part of it, the Lib Dems, made safe standing official party policy in 2008. It is time they remembered that, and did something to bring it about.

Regardless of whether there’s political capital to be made out of the issue – and there might be some – it’s just the right thing to do. Every week, thousands of fans stand in seated areas that just weren’t designed for it. It’s not right and it’s not fair on those who would prefer to sit either.

Let’s be sensible about this and give fans and clubs the trials that so many of them clearly want.

  • Of course the other great thing about watching football in Germany is the way you can have a beer while watching the game.

    Isn’t it also time the draconian laws against alcohol at football grounds are assessed.

    The madness that involves drawn curtains or facing away from the pitch in executive boxes to automatic hatches nearly taking your hand off when the ref starts the second half and selling beer must stop. It’s crazy.

    These laws were a knee jerk reaction to a hooligan problem in the 80’s that’s not relevant today.

  • Anonymous

    Brother had trials with Bristol Rovers and Swansea City, but no success. That is what all sport is about – success. Sharp end of success. Was a good cricketer myself, Glamorgan trialler, but got nowhere, was an alronder – batter and off spinner – if I had any sense, I would have practised more. I had a stunning off cut, and had a hell of a batting hook, but there we go.

  • I do agree. I think safe standing is the way to go with football, however, there are difficulties in the game of football in terms of the yobbish culture unfortunately attached to it. Unlike, say Rugby; which hardly ever has any major incidents, Its pretty safe to attend (for women & children). The game of football should be more accessible for all (emphasis on safety) & the government should try & support this, as it is one of Britains most popular activities.

  • The Liberal Democrat have no say in this government, coalition it was meant to be intially, a fusion of administration allowing choice between the two. Waiting on confirmation for safe standing to begin in football has took a long time, especially with the poilcy already supposed to be in place from the Lib Dems. Fans and enthusiasts of the game welcome safe standing, but why not the people more in charge even, the Premier League. Surely, it would want to attract more punters, and especially families.

  • Simon

    So even THIS is a party political matter ?

  • Graham

    I can recall shortly after Hillsborough, Kenny Dalgleish, stated that he felt they should reduce capacity in standing areas, and that all-seater might not be the only answer.

    If someone so closely involve with Hillsborough can offer this opinion, then I feel it’s worthy of public debate. You have to remember, that Kenny would’ve grown up having witnessed the Ibrox Disaster, so would have a wider perspective on the issue, than the raw emotions that followed Hillsborough.

    Football grounds were highly charged places in the 70’s and my Uncle who followed Celtic, often spoke of the dangers lurking, every time when leaving Parkhead. They were simply overcrowded and unsafe.But, this does not mean that an end to standing was the right choice. Maybe the truth is, that it was the only logical choice at that time.

    Scotland has been looking at Germany for a few years now, and club supporters have been lobbbying for trials at grounds. The biggest issue, may be getting support from the Police.

    In Scotland, they are being used as a political football, (pardon the pun), between the SNP executive and other parties, creating an Orwellian state-like atmosphere at games.

    My belief is, that England is probably more ready, willing and able to trial these systems, than up here in Tcheuchterland.

    Maybe the English can show us the way, as usual.

  • mker74@yahoo.co.uk

    I would have thought that fundamental to the point of seating only is that it limits the numbers who can enter as each ticket corresponds to a particular seat.
    Standing does not sound pleasant in any case, if you are not very tall, and unable to see beyond the person standing in front of you.

  • As a season ticket holder in the standing area at Furiani (SC Bastia, the place everyone would have you believe is full of illiterate hooligans) and also a Merseysider who was too scared to set foot inside a football stadium before, it is absolutely possible to have safe standing areas. If you’d like to see it for yourself, you only have to ask …

  • nochinquinn
  • Michele

    Quite so, and it’s the fact that standing areas have to be sloped that led to the piling up and crushing of victims at Hillsborough.

  • Michele

    I can’t believe that in yet another place only SOME of the facts are being mentioned even after all these years.
    Many of the fans died because of delays in them receiving medical attention.

    Those delays were surely due to the Ambulance Service being on Work to Rule.

    There were insufficient ambulances at the ground and when the Ambulance Service was radioed for more, in fact for all available, the request was not ‘obeyed’.

    There’s a rule you see, spare ambulances must always be available for another incident. Work to Rule was functioning.