Safe Standing – Is Now The Right Time?

From the Rage Online newsdesk Tuesday, June 4th, 2019  

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 is the change of priorities – 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 (the FA Cup Final last week had empty seats at Wembley, for pity’s sake!)). 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.

Oxford mirror this footballing sea change. Our stadium in the Eighties, the much-loved Manor, was one of those stereotypical grounds – somewhat ramshackle, with a sloping pitch, more stands than sides to the ground, and an away end that resembled a wonky construction site. And now we’ve got the Kassam – poorly situated, dire public transport links, soulless, high cantilevered stands and massive open corners which allow any noise generated to dissipate. Oxford’s stadium has gone from being a ridiculously characterful home to a badly built Airfix kit with gaps between the parts, like an over-eager child with too much poly glue. The soul of a football club – its supporters – need to be as one with its body – the ground. The Kassam simply doesn’t achieve that.

Not all of these changes were necessarily negative. There were issues with terracing – they were over-crowded and unsafe, often uncovered, poorly built, slippery, muck-encrusted, overfilled. With this in mind, it’s perhaps surprising that attendances held up so well (although the lack of television coverage almost certainly played 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 (although, yes, the Eighties were Oxford’s greatest decade, so, on balance, football wasn’t too bad).

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 – ‘who are they?’ and all that – and therefore nobody attends their games. Sorry.) 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). Oxford City Council don’t seem to care too much about Oxford’s fans’ behaviour in this respect (for once), because the persistent standing at the back of the East Stand goes unpunished. But some supporters are always going to stand up at football – it feels wrong to sit down on an away day, and it also feels wrong to belt out chants when you’re sitting down. Just try it now. Go on. It’s awful, isn’t it? But standing in seating areas 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 comes from the away fans. Part of this is stadium design – roofs are increasingly high, 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 first English league club to have trialled safe standing – Shrewsbury Town.

Shrewsbury are 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. Almost as bad as naming your stadium after yourself), and installed a section of rail seating two years ago – which club officials say has drastically improved the atmosphere. It also enjoys 75% occupancy in a ground which is, on average, only 60% full. (By comparison, our average attendance in 2018/19 was around 7,300, which makes the ground 58% full (although if you include the segregated area in the North Stand, this number rises to closer to 65%)). 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 (like Oxford fans, obviously). 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.

True, Oxford could just build a safe standing section, probably in the East Stand, or maybe even at the Fence End (goodness knows we need something at the Fence End). It’s not prohibited for clubs below the Championship – so why not just go ahead and do it? The club have shown some support for safe standing – installing a trial rail in the home end at the beginning of this season. But that’s one rail, and if the board are serious about getting us promoted to the Championship, installing a full stand of safe standing would be nothing short of financially illiterate, especially considering the fairly average attendances this year (although, considering that safe standing could boost atmosphere and therefore improve attendances, this may be something of a false equivalence).

The legacy of 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 had nothing to do with the tragedy. The main factors in Hillsborough – crowd control, fan behaviour, 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 – like Oxford – 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.

A version of this article originally appeared in Back Page Football www.backpagefootball.com

This entry was posted on Tuesday, June 4th, 2019 at 1:12 pm and appears under News Items. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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