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Is it time to embrace safe standing?

Everyone who followed football in 1989 should remember that day at Hillsborough. I was watching Manchester City get a thrashing at Ewood Park, going down 4-0 to promotion rivals Blackburn Rovers. A rumour spread early in the match amongst the supporters of trouble in Sheffield. In those days, communication was a bit more basic, and even as I left the ground down-hearted at the result, I expected nothing more than a couple of injuries – that’s what the rumour had been. Then the radio was turned on in the car, and the TV turned on when I got home, and what I saw will always shock me.

It’s a day that, to state the blindingly obvious, can never be allowed to happen again. No football fan should ever be at risk when entering a football stadium in this (or any) country.

The Taylor Report brought in the introduction of all-seater stadiums, a situation that of course remains to this day (in the top 2 leagues). The effect of the report spread beyond these shores – there was pressure in other countries as a result of Hillsborough to get rid of terracing. The German FA resisted this pressure, and at least 10% of tickets at Bundesliga games must be standing. And it is they that are held up as the shining example by those who propose a return to terracing in our top leagues. There are a few fans groups in this country who have campaigned for many years for a return of terracing – groups such as the Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF) and Stand Up Sit Down (SUSD) are two such examples.

The BBC looked at the German example as far back as 2007. They found that at Schalke’s magnificent VELTINS-Arena, there has not been a single incident or injury that was caused by having standing terraces in the 6 years of their existence. When the FSF asked Borussia Dortmund for injury statistics for its 25,000-capacity standing section, Europe’s largest, it was told the club do not keep statistics for injuries inside the ground as they were not an issue. The BBC article also said:

The VELTINS-Arena has staggered barriers on every fourth step of its standing section. These can be easily removed and replaced with seating for international and European club games that operate under all-seater rules.

German stadium expert Professor Gunter Pilz has said: “We have never had safety problems with standing in Germany.” Pilz, from the Institute of Sports Science at Hannover University, told BBC Sport: “Standing is part of German football culture and there is no evidence at all that it is more dangerous than sitting.”

Pilz has debated the issue of safe standing sections with Sepp Blatter, the boss of world football’s governing body Fifa. “When I spoke to Blatter about the all-seater rule he said it was a question of security,” said Pilz. “But during the World Cup you had people standing on their seats to get a better view – that is far more dangerous because in panic situations you could get a domino effect.”

Past governments have tended to ignore calls for a return to terracing, but the odd minister breaks ranks – Kate Hoey, for one. Last year, the Liberal Democrats made noises about supporting a reintroduction of terraces. As Don Foster, spokesman for culture, media and sport stated to the Independent: “The Liberal Democrats are committed to exploring options for introducing safe standing at football grounds in consultation with fans, clubs and safety experts and have passed a motion at our party conference to this effect. The evidence from countries like Germany shows that safe standing can operate effectively and safely to give fans more choice about how they enjoy the game.”

Foster tabled a private members bill to reintroduce standing to certain areas of stadiums within the top 2 leagues. However, this being the Liberal Democrats, they’ve probably gone back on their word by now (the truth is it was tabled in December, and has a 2nd reading on 17th June).

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From personal experience, I have been to Schalke, and their stadium in Gelsenkirchen. The stadium, which holds painful memories for England (exiting the World Cup to Portugal in 2006 on penalties), has a capacity of 61,000 with over 16,000 standing places. Adult standing tickets are dirt cheap (often under ten pounds for an adult), and the price includes travel.

I went to there a couple of years ago to watch Manchester City. The away fans were in a seated area, but then so was everyone, with it being a European game, so no insight into terracing from me. Not surprisingly however, everyone stood anyway, making a mockery of the argument that it’s safer to have seats. It isn’t, it wasn’t. With terracing not allowed in non-domestic games, German grounds have utilised “hybrid” terracing, that can be swapped for seats when the need arises. At Werder Bremen’s Weserstadion, seats are connected to barriers that run along the length of every second step in the standing section. They are flipped up and locked for domestic games, and flipped down and unlocked for European and international games, with a 50% reduction in capacity.

The legislation is clearly inconsistent for football. Both the FSF and SUSD have repeatedly asked the authorities why standing is allowed at other sports, football below Championship level, and even music concerts at all-seater football stadia. Are we seriously led to believe that football fans just can’t be trusted or that when a crowd above a certain figure suddenly becomes unsafe?

As I said when discussing Schalke, the issue of many fans simply ignoring the rules and standing up anyway (especially away fans at grounds), often upsetting supporters that want to sit and causing friction with stewards attempting to police the situation, has also been raised by both groups. Standing in a seated area is more dangerous than standing in a terrace, in my opinion.

Globally, many football tragedies have happened in all-seater stadiums. The idea that all seater-stadiums remove risk of injury is hogwash. Stampedes at football grounds in South Africa and Ghana in 2001, claiming over 150 lives, both occurred in all-seater stadiums. The common factors were ineffective stewarding, fraudulent ticket allocations, crowd behaviour and over-zealous policing. Those tragedies explode the myth that all-seat stadia are necessarily safe. You might argue that a “stampede” is hardly a likely occurrence in a British stadium, but then neither are the events of 1989 anymore. The terracing of 1989 would bear no resemblance to modern-day  terracing. No perimeter fences, wider walkways, no penning in of excessive crowds, policing with no communication or lack of turnstiles or crush barriers – there would be little comparison. Strict safety rules would have to be adhered to at all times, but this is no different to rules for seated areas. Capacity could even be limited to the same as if the area was seated, to give a more spacious feel and eliminate any congestion and over-crowding.

Football grounds are safer places than they used to be. Modern stadiums have been built throughout the country, and technology has advanced immeasurably. Lower leagues after all have always maintained terracing. Bigger crowds occur of course in the higher leagues, but this doesn’t mean they can’t be managed – they can. And safety issues apart, there is strong evidence that it would improve atmospheres in grounds (much-needed), and increase capacity, which could also mean cheaper tickets for the terrace itself.

The main opposition (apart from successive governments), understandably, comes from Liverpool. All-seater stadiums retain the firm support of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, which states: “There’s no such thing as safe standing.” Kenny Dalglish spoke in December in opposition to the private members bill. He said:
To me, I think safe standing is a bit of a contradiction in terms. It might be safe enough if you’re there alone but unless it’s managed and looked after properly, then I don’t see how it could be safe. The football fans at Hillsborough in ’89 put their trust in the authorities to look after them, to make sure that standing was safe. People are going through the process at the moment to get the justice that they’ve waited so long for and hugely deserve. I think it’s really a bit insensitive for someone to put this forward.”

It is a contentious issue – many in Liverpool think a return to terracing is disrespectful to those who died at Hillsborough. I don’t understand how, but I wasn’t there. Maybe British football fans can’t be trusted to behave themselves, and the German comparison is void. Either way, there seems little chance of it being introduced to Premiership or Championship grounds in the forseeable future.

Article title: Is it time to embrace safe standing?

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