The one thing on which everyone can agree is that safety is paramount. Above ticket pricing, above atmosphere, above everything. Nobody should go to a football match and never come home. Nobody should go into a football ground and feel unsafe. Nobody is advocating that the safety standards in the Government-funded Green Guide should be weakened or diluted.
Safe Standing became an official campaign of the newly-formed Football Supporters’ Federation in 2002, but as early as 1999 there was a campaign for the City of Manchester stadium to incorporate some form of standing. In 2004, a new campaign called Stand Up Sit Down was established, merging with the FSF’s own campaign in 2009.
Once an operation founded on optimism rather than expectation, that picture is now changing. By 2014, Football League clubs had unanimously backed safe standing, while board members of individual clubs spoke out in favour. Although the law banning standing at Premier League and Championship clubs still applies, the Sports Grounds Safety Authority approved the use of standing in the 21 Football League grounds not subject to the legislation. Shrewsbury Town and Northampton Town have already stated their intention to introduce standing areas with rail seats, while in the Premier League, West Brom have made it clear they are keen to take part in trials. They are not alone.
“There is just no evidence that properly configured and managed standing is any less safe than properly configured and managed seating,” Peter Daykin, the co-ordinator the FSF’s Safe Standing campaign, tells The Set Pieces.
I ask Daykin whether we are now at the stage of when, rather than if, safe standing will be permitted in all stadia. “Put it this way: we’re one goal up at half-time,” he says. “To say ‘when’ not ‘if’ suggests that there is no possibility that it can’t happen, and I don’t think we are there yet because it could still be knocked back. But it’s more likely to than not. I say that because in the last few years the entire tenor of the debate has changed as clubs and those inside the industry have got on board.”
If progress has been slow in English football, the rest of the world has embraced the re-introduction of standing areas in all-seater stadia. It is commonplace in Germany’s Bundesliga, including Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion and Borussia Monchengladbach’s Borussia-Park, where almost 30% of the 54,000 capacity is covered by standing areas. There are similar examples in Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, USA and Australia.
Until very recently in the UK, a move to safe standing could only be viewed as a reality from afar, made commonplace in different sporting cultures with a different history regarding standing at sporting events. The final leap was made in June 2015 when Celtic were granted a safe standing licence after lengthy discussions with Glasgow City Council. By July 2016, a 2,600 capacity area was complete. Suddenly, the goalposts of the argument have changed. If you can do it at Celtic Park, why not at Old Trafford?
“Celtic worked tirelessly on this issue and we were delighted that this permission was finally granted,” said Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell at the launch of the club’s new standing section. “The introduction of rail seating at Celtic Park represents an investment in spectator safety.”
As ever, safety was the priority.
Yet it is clear that safe standing provides another knock-on benefit. The atmosphere at Celtic’s home games has been noticeably improved by a section of support who have effectively used the standing areas as a trouble-free party zone. If that sounds like a slightly flippant term, when FedExField in Landover, Maryland had seats replaced by standing areas by the Washington Redskins, they were specifically referred to as ‘party decks’.
“The atmosphere at big games has not been and is not an issue,” Celtic season ticket holder Brian Gilmour says. “Maintaining that quality at average home games in November or February is always the challenge. What the ‘North Curve’ [the name given to Celtic’s standing area] does fantastically well is act as a catalyst for the entire stadium. The standing section has facilitated its reawakening for those less important home games, and the call and response of the ‘Glasgow’s Green & White’ song can be quite something when it starts up on the 60th minute of a meaningless league win over Ross County.”
Marketing men at English clubs will refer to it as “matchday experience” – which has its own financial value – but to thousands up and down the country it is the hairs standing up on the back of your neck as you hear the roar. It is shared joy in victory and shared sorrow in defeat, the moments that stick with us the longest and sculpt our football supportership. If they can be enhanced, with no risk to supporter safety, why would that option not be preferred?
If English clubs are finally beginning to publicly vocalise their official support for safe standing, supporters have been for far longer. An FSF survey in 2012 revealed that 90% of those asked backed having the choice to sit or stand, such as the rail seats installed at Celtic.
“I think the issue has just got closer and closer,” Daykin says. “When it’s in the US and Australia it’s one thing, but then it’s in the Netherlands and Germany, and then all of a sudden it’s in Glasgow and getting such a positive reaction and being so widely well-received. That makes it much harder to think that it can’t happen here.”
Yet there is a movement against safe standing, and it comes from an emotive cause. “We have a tendency to forget things in history,” Hillsborough Support Group secretary Sue Roberts told BBC Sport. “I think it’s one step in the wrong direction, that will lead to another and another. I would hate to be still around to say I told you so.”
Roberts lost her brother at Hillsborough, and she is not alone in her suspicion of a return to standing at football matches. “I never want to go backwards,” Margaret Aspinall told JOE.co.uk. “I never want to think that my grandchildren could one day end up standing at a football match. There is nothing to be gained by turning back the clock to a time when this was not the case.”
Trevor Hicks, who with Aspinall did so much to fight for justice post-Hillsborough, feels exactly the same. “We are against any attempts to go backwards. In very simple terms, we think it would be a retrograde step. It is a point of principle and we believe all‑seater grounds are much safer.”
These are views that shouldn’t be ignored, and it is easy to understand the reticence to go back to something that played a part in such an awful tragedy. It is important to note that not all involved in the Justice for the 96 campaign are against safe standing – plenty actually support it – but Hicks, Aspinall, Roberts and others associate standing at football with a lack of safety. It would be regrettable if the fight for safe standing forced a wedge between football and those who tirelessly led the Hillsborough justice campaign for so long.
Yet it has to be possible to empathise with those views while simultaneously disagreeing with them. The fact is that while standing was a part of Hillsborough, it was not to blame for it. The Taylor Report blamed overcrowding, poor policing and the stadium layout for the tragedy. The reason that Lord Justice Taylor advised all-seater stadiums by law was not because standing itself was dangerous, but because the style of terraced standing combined with inefficient policing was not safe. This was the best option to ensure safety.
This phrase cannot be repeated often enough: safe standing in 2017 could not be more different from the terraces of the 1980s. Rail seating, the style favoured by Celtic and across Europe, allows for a safety barrier on each row and a seat for each standing place, that can be used as an alternative to standing. Each standing space has an individual numbered ticket which corresponds to that position, rather than the ‘fill up and see’ strategy of the past.
“As someone who studied the Hillsborough Disaster as part of my degree and who read all the witness statements, I was initially very reluctant to see standing return to football,” Gilmour says. “However, the safe standing of rail seating area is very different to the ash hill terraces of my youth. The safe standing at Celtic Park exists within the environment of a modern 60,000 capacity stadium with all the improved safety facilities. It bears no comparisons to the terraces of the past. What it does do is allow fans to experience spectating in a way that suits them.”
One of the arguments against safe standing is that all-seater stadiums have created an environment that encourages more families to attend matches, and that statement is undoubtedly true. Yet the Safe Standing campaign is not an attempt to make all areas of all grounds available for standing or even use it in the majority. It is instead to provide an option for those supporters who wish to utilise it. This is a question of choice, not obligation.
The issue of being able to stand at football matches has never really gone away. Nineteen current Football League stadia have terracing, but even aside from those many of you will have stood in away ends at Premier League and Championship grounds as a norm, with stewards long giving up on attempting to make large crowds sit in unison. This is not an attempt at anarchy or hooliganism, merely generating atmosphere. Having supporters standing in seated areas, particularly en masse, is far more dangerous than them doing so in allocated safe standing areas.
“The main reason that football clubs have got on board is that the current system isn’t working,” says Daykin. “We had a spate of clubs five or six years ago who were having a real problem with their Safety Advisory Groups. Fans were standing and the clubs couldn’t make them sit down. Allocations were being cut and there was the threat of ends being closed, but you went to an away end in the Premier League or Championship and sometimes you had 100% standing. Because you couldn’t talk about it openly, you couldn’t manage the problem pragmatically.”
Speaking to Daykin, you immediately sense his enthusiasm for the campaign, and the belief that progress is being made more rapidly than ever before. Not only is standing at football matches no longer a taboo issue, it has been placed front and centre of the national sporting debate.
The success of the Celtic Park rollout, not just commercially but in the improvement in atmosphere and effectual management of supporters within a large stadium, only adds weight to the questions being asked. Safe standing is surely coming to a English football stadium near you. After 25 years, the way we watch the game is changing.