This current moment in time represents an interesting moment in the debate over “Safe Standing” at football matches. On one hand, the Hillsborough Charity Single, a cover of “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” performed by a number of famous musicians including Paul McCartney and Robbie Williams has reached Number One in the UK pop charts, whilst at the same time, fourteen clubs throughout the football league have backed a proposal to take a step towards reintroducing standing, rephrased as “Safe Standing”, in sections of their respective stadiums.
But would Safe Standing, which has become a popular and successful element of spectating at Bundesliga games, have the same effect on the Premier League, or does it have the potential to open up some old, and even some fresh wounds, in light of the resurgence of interest in the 1989 Hillsborough disaster?
Well, it’s time to dispel a few myths. Firstly, I can safely say I have never attended a football match where at least one portion of the crowd, if not the entire away support, haven’t spent the majority of the game on their feet. Similarly, there are periods of the match where most of the crowd are unseated; waiting in optimum position to start celebrating or deliver an outburst of emotion that could not be successfully portrayed whilst sat down. From my experiences as a Charlton fan, of which I have attended a few other grounds around the country as well as The Valley on a regular basis, it seems fairly typical of English clubs that a designated area of the more hardcore fans would collectively assemble and remain standing throughout the match. Therefore, suggesting Safe Standing is hardly a huge deviation from the norm, it would more be a legalisation of a practice that is very much already on-going.
Furthermore, I have never been at a match where stewards or club officials have made a considerable effort to make supporters keep to their seats, most probably because the effort would be futile. Apart from threatening to postpone the game, when it comes down to it there is little a handful of stewards can do to control a lairy mob of football fans anything from a couple of thousand to tens of thousands strong.
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Another myth is that English stadia in the top two divisions are currently all-seater by law due to the Hillsborough disaster. Although the Taylor Report, which examined the terrible tragedy, recommended the transition away from standing sections at stadiums, it was more to do with providing better crowd control and giving the police a better opportunity to do their job than it was an effort to avoid future crushes. All seater stadiums allow for easier surveillance, a better record of who and how many are attending the game as well as where they are situated, provides natural lines of division through large groups, and furthermore makes petty crimes such as pick-pocketing and scuffles between fans much more difficult.
As previously mentioned, standing has long been a feature of the Bundesliga following a decision by the German footballing authorities not to switch to all-seater stadia in 1993. But surely it would be wrong to suggest that our continental friends are simply toying with fate and waiting for a tragedy of their own. Much money and time has been invested in providing the right safety measures to allow fans to remain standing without endangering themselves or those around them. Editor of European football website “Gannin’ Away,” Andy Hudson, describes how the “vario” seats used in Germany provide safety to standing supporters: “There are metal barriers situated at regular intervals on the terracing. This removes huge gaps of open terracing that many people remember from UK football grounds. As a result of the barriers, there are never too many fans squeezed into a confined space. This eliminates any potential for surges and people tumbling down the terracing. Also, ticket numbers are regulated so the standing areas are never to full capacity. While you could get X amount of fans in an area, clubs sell less than that volume. This is a practice that’s replicated across many European countries”.
The Bundesliga has been so readily compared to in this debate as a model of success not just because they have effectively handled the safety aspects of having standing fans, but the German league has also reaped the benefits. Most fans would argue that standing at a match is more fun, it may sound a trivial point but for the majority of supporters it is true. Furthermore, there is some evidence of this in the Bundesliga. The fantastic atmosphere at matches has been acknowledged by reporters for some time, and has even carried across into Champions League clashes involving Bundesliga clubs, where German fans, although seated for European occasions (another benefit of the Vario seat, which has a foldable rail seat), have remained loud, passionate and electric in their support throughout. Similarly, back to the domestic league, German clubs have regularly high attendances with the average stadia being of larger capacity than their English counterparts.
So, where do I stand on this? Well, I do support the idea of standing sections of stadia. Other journalists have suggested that seated stadiums have allowed for minority groups, women and children to feel more comfortable attending matches, but the Safe Standing campaign is directed at choice rather than being either all standing or all seated. But the proposals have received condemnation by those affected by Hillsborough and it is easy to understand why.
Unfortunately, along with the disaster came a huge injustice that has still not yet been fully overcome. It is not the technical aspects of Safe Standing that alarm fans, it is the emotional and historical connection to a tragic event. Currently, there is an unwritten law that football fans are allowed to stand at their own digression, and as long as they don’t cause trouble authorities allow them to remain on their feet. In my opinion this convention should continue, regardless of the benefits to the English spectator experience, until the wounds left behind from Hillsborough are fully healed.