Speaking as a football fan as well as a political writer, the question of safe standing within football grounds in the UK is one that intrigues me more than any other political question being asked in this country at the moment. I have been going to watch football since I was eleven, and some of my fondest memories are of standing at away matches alongside thousands of other people sharing the same belief; the same desire; the same ideals- much like members of a particular political party attending the same rally.
The line between football and politics is frequently blurred in this country- and that is hardly surprising, given the startling similarities between football and political supporters. The fact of the matter is that the best atmospheres, those almost tribal occasions when fans seem to morph into one, all in support of the one cause, the support of their team, all occur when supporters are on their feet. A good loud supporting voice comes deep from within one’s stomach and it isn’t possible to do that sitting down on a bit of plastic! The football supporters of this country do not have many rights, but one of them should be the right to stand and sing, shout and support their team.
Some may say it’s too soon after the latest revelations from Hillsborough to be writing this article, but this is a point that needs making and I am determined to do so. A comment I recently heard from the mother of one of the Hillsborough victims is that “there are 96 reasons” for all seated stadia to remain in the UK. I completely sympathise with the woman in question’s reasons for holding that view- but in my view, keeping all seated stadia and not offering fans a choice of whether to stand or sit is simply allowing the Hillsborough disaster to beat the football supporters of this country.
What happened in 1989 was a result of unregulated, unrestricted mob rule and, British football having already seen a number of serious warnings about the unsafety of the terraces, it was honestly a tragedy waiting to happen. Huge open terraces spanning across the ground like the one which used to be present at Sheffield Wednesday’s home, with fans packed in like sardines and grounds significantly over capacity can never return. They are a thing of the past for 96 very good reasons and it needs to stay that way. However, those who oppose standing in football grounds of any description frequently are guilty of failing to distinguish between ‘standing’ and ‘safe standing.’ A great number of football supporters already stand at matches- I personally have attended in excess of 300 matches supporting my own club and more than half of those have been on my feet. The experience could be said in some senses to be a throwback to the 1970s and 1980s and the days of the terraces, and the worst injury I have ever incurred in the process is a calf barked on the hinges of my seat during goal celebrations. Thousands of football fans are out in force standing up at football matches every weekend and the experience encompasses all the best parts of the terrace experience fans had pre-Taylor Report; the tribal atmosphere, the sense of togetherness, a common cause- but has none of the negative aspects; the fear, the constant danger, the lack of a feeling of security, the poor hygiene. Well then, I hear you, the sceptical and ever suspicious reader (that’s a good thing, by the way) ask, if football fans are standing up at matches already, what is the need for government to get involved? The answer is that this issue is not just about fans standing up at matches- it is about having the right to a choice. Although many fans stand up at matches every weekend, not all of them choose to. Older and younger fans especially have to be considered, on the basis that they may not be able to stand for elongated periods and currently, in certain sections of certain grounds, have to in order to be able to see the game. The current system does not really suit anyone- fans who wish to stand up at games find their position compromised by the police and stewards who are under orders to ensure ‘safety’ at games (although what danger well behaved fans standing still inside a football ground poses is not clear), and fans who wish to sit down at games, in many cases (particularly at away games) find their position compromised by fans who wish to stand and find themselves having to get on their feet against their will in order to get a clear view of the action. In summary, it has been twenty three years since Hillsborough. The country has had time to mourn, reflect, think, plan, opine and now it is time for action. Football supporters across Britain make a huge commitment of both time and money in order to follow their team and feed their passion, and they deserve to have a choice in how they support their teams inside the ground.
The point is frequently made that standing sections discourage younger fans and women from attending matches- but this opinion is not backed up with fact. Go to any lower league ground, stand on the main terrace and you will find whole families- mums, dads, lads, granddads- at the game, all having a laugh and a Saturday, and indeed, many clubs run special family priced tickets, such is the popularity and the ticket demand for families. With well regulated, well structured safe standing sections, there is absolutely no reason why this successful family orientated lower league system cannot be translated to the likes of Old Trafford and the Emirates.
Looking at the support the idea for safe standing sections within UK football grounds had this time last year, and comparing that to the state of play now, huge strides have been made. In December 2011, no professional clubs supported the idea. Today, all twelve Scottish Premier League clubs support the idea; Premier League champions Manchester City were reported this month to have asked the FA for permission to hold safe standing trials within their Etihad Stadium; West Ham United chairman David Gold, interviewed on television earlier in the year, said he hoped to see safe standing sections in the Olympic Stadium in Stratford should the Hammers move there; and sixteen Football League clubs have declared their support for the campaign. Mr Gold’s words were backed up by West Ham vice chairman Karen Brady, who said simply “in this day and age, the customer has the right to choose.”
In essence, this is what the idea is all about- choice. Britain defines itself as a democracy but such a claim is open to criticism if we cannot grant consumers a choice in something as small whether they sit down or stand up at football matches. We offer consumers choice in almost every other set of circumstances; what newspaper they read, what they watch on television, what political party they elect to represent them- so why should football, a business like any other, be any different? Significant popular opinion is still hurting from Hillsborough and will be difficult to negotiate, but Westminster has the support of many football clubs who want the best for their fans, and now is the time for political bravery and to stick up for what democracy really is all about- choice.
By Alex Shilling