The thorny issue of whether football fans should be given back the choice to stand at games is back in the headlines this week following meetings with the authorities. Sports Minister Hugh Robertson has said he would listen to the fan’s views and see if there really was a clamour to bring standing back to the British game.
Of course, for some clubs residing outside the top tiers, fans have been able to enjoy legal standing at games with terraces still existing at over 20 grounds in the football league at the likes of Huish Park, London Road and Moss Rose. The mere fact that lower league fans can still stand, and with an unblemished safety record for major incidents, already makes a mockery of the idea that ‘safe standing’ cannot work, it does, week in and week out.
As a Scunthorpe fan, this issue is one that has suddenly become close to my heart as we find ourselves effectively facing ‘punishment’ for our recent achievements, with regulations in force that we must seat our terrace. A brief Championship sojourn in 2007/08, coupled with our consecutive Championship campaigns in 2009/10 and 2010/11, means Scunthorpe have exceeded the 3 year grace period for teams in the top 2 tiers of English football to be all seater stadia. If we were to be successful in staying up and play in the Championship for a fourth season (which to be honest looks increasingly unlikely!) our terrace would have to go.
This would have damaging repercussions for Scunthorpe United, a club already struggling to get by with the smallest capacity in the Championship and on meager gates, the move would see us chalking a further 1,000 off the capacity to accommodate the seats, and that’s a potential disaster. Not only would it kill the atmosphere stone dead in a ground with poor acoustics, by taking away the only vocal element but it would risk losing supporters forever. Scunthorpe remains very much a working class town, take away the affordable terrace and replace with more seats, and we could see those who pack out the Doncaster Road End, turn their back on the game for good. The financial burden placed on the club should also not be forgotten, nor should the fact that regardless of whether we spend the next few years in the lower echelons once again, the change has to be permanent.
Scunthorpe’s plight and the subsequent ‘Keep Scunthorpe Standing’ campaign has become a cornerstone of the Football Supporter’s Foundation (FSF) campaign for ‘Safe Standing’ but aside from Scunthorpe supporters, why do thousands of fans throughout the country also believe in ‘Safe Standing’? The FSF petition for Safe Standing, amassed 5,000 signatures in little more than a day, and it was easy to glean four key reasons why those who backed it, believe in Safe Standing.
Undoubtedly the top reason given why fans want safe standing, is the perception with all seater stadiums, the game went a bit ‘flat’. Top flight supporters were quick to point out the ‘soulness’ nature of their super stadiums, suggesting that the all seating rule has ‘killed the atmosphere’. It’s hard to disagree, no longer can groups of mates all congregate together as getting tickets together with your mates is now a near impossibility if you cannot afford season tickets. Premier League fans as a whole tend to enjoy away games more, where standing in front of seats, has all but been unofficially permitted with stewards fighting a losing battle trying to get thousands of fans to sit en masse. It’s rare you see an away game anywhere, where fans are not stood all game.
There can be no doubt that many fans have simply been priced out of the game they love, particularly supporters of the top two tiers, yes brand spanking new stadiums may have increased the capacity but that’s no good when they aren’t being filled. Aside from the biggest clubs, watch Match of The Day any week and witness rows and rows of empty seats, sometimes almost half full stadiums. With the added comfort and better facilities, ticket prices have gone through the roof, making it difficult for families to enjoy the day together or for the average football fan to afford a ticket week in, week out. No one would expect a return to standing would lead to as prices as cheap as we’ve seen in the Bundesliga, but it is to be hoped a standing area would bring decreased prices and perhaps encourage those priced out to return. It’s worth pointing out a gradual decline in the numbers of young people attending Premier League games because they simply cannot afford it. Many of today’s fans grew up going to games with their fathers, then in their teens with their mates, but you certainly don’t see masses and masses of young people going to Premier League games together now. Is the growing cost of our game actually pricing out the next generation of fans? Food for thought.
When reading the petition, it struck me the amount of people who supported the petition but did not actually want to stand themselves. These supporters wanted fans to once again have the choice to sit or stand. The current situation with illegal standing often sees fans who do want to sit to watch the game, forced into standing as those around them stand. Surely a designated standing area is safer than standing in front of, or in some cases on top of seats? There are plenty of reasons why some people want to sit and enjoy the game in peace and others wish to stand and generally want to be louder, by creating a designated standing area again, it keeps everybody happy, and the only thing that can spoil fans view is an ill positioned post or two.
Proven it can work
If the evidence of the unblemished safety records at the grounds that have existing terraces isn’t enough, there is already plenty of evidence elsewhere that the idea that the FSF is pushing forward, can work, with many fans citing the example set by the Bundesliga in Germany, who instead of pushing forward to make their stadiums all seater, embraced ways to make the existing terracing even safer. Many English fans have looked on wistfully as German fans enjoy top flight games, with much cheaper ticket prices, in designated, regulated ‘safe’ standing areas (with beer in hand!). Fans who signed the petition insist whereas the German football authorities were committed to improving the fans match day experience, The English football authorities were committed to improving revenue above anything else.
Of course, there remains vehement opposition to the plans, most notably from support groups for the families of the Hillsborough tragedy, the catalyst for the introduction of all seater stadiums.
I have incredible sympathy with those families but as Lord Taylor’s report cited, it was not the act of standing in itself that caused the tragic events of that day, but rather the result of overcrowding poorly observed safety measures, inadequate policing and the design of the terraces themselves.
I can completely understand why anyone affected by the disaster, would strongly oppose this suggestion but it has to be noted what it is the FSF are pushing for here. Nobody is advocating a return to the days where terraces were more like penned in cages, where overcrowding was common and were in short, very dangerous. The ‘Safe Standing’ FSF and those who support the petition, advocate is something similar to what they have in Germany, standing areas that are inherently safe by offering individual space, barriers to prevent surging and can be sold as ticket only, by having a seat fastened to each space, they know exactly how many people can fit in the stand and there is no danger of overcrowding. One of Lord Taylor’s main reasons why England needed all seater stadiums was that seating would offer individual space and fans could be identified quicker in the event of any trouble. The solution provided in Germany could be an answer to this problem.
I have less sympathy for the other vocal opposition to the plans, namely the Premier League and Football League who have made it very clear that they will rebuff any attempt to re introduce standing to the game on a widespread level. It is very easy to see why the Premier League and Football League will fight any attempt to implement standing, the game in this country has never been richer, the advent of super stadiums with their superior facilities, gave the Premier League and the Football League the opportunity to push up the ticket prices to almost eye watering levels. They know a return to standing would have to see a decrease in ticket prices, nothing substantial but a decrease nevertheless and they cannot allow that to happen. The official reasons the spokesman gave for rejecting seating is that ‘seating will always be safer than standing’ and ‘seating has encouraged more women and children to games’. That second point is definitely true and I said as much in a previous article, but there’s also a sexist undercurrent to that statement. Who’s to say that women and children wouldn’t want to stand also? Obviously there will be those who prefer the more comfortable surroundings of seating but is it all that comfortable anyway? Is being squished up against someone with barely any legroom more comfortable? At Scunthorpe there are plenty of women who choose to stand every week and are comfortable doing so and would support the FSF campaign. It’s hard not to look at the Premier League’s stance and not be cynical of their reasons given. They are protecting their own financial interests but what about the clubs hit hard by the seating rules, Scunthorpe are soon to suffer, and clubs like Plymouth and Luton who in recent years have lost their terraces and cannot reinstall them have also been left counting the cost.
They say ‘seating is always safer than standing’ but at the grounds which do still have seating and standing, how many major incidents can be recalled of the stands in recent years?
Certainly in the years I’ve supported Scunthorpe, the only major supporter accident I can recall happening at Glanford Park, occurred some three weeks ago when Leicester City were the visitors and took place in the seated away end. A Leicester fan perhaps getting too carried away with his side’s easy victory against relegation fodder, thought it would be a good idea to celebrate by standing on the yellow safety railing, he lost his footing and plunged into the exit way 15ft below, leaving him with a fractured skull. Obviously thoughts are with him for a speedy recovery.
Incredibly, just one week later, a similar incident was reported during the Millwall/Cardiff game, when a Cardiff fan was lucky to escape serious injury after a horror plunge saw him fall 20ft from the balcony of the upper tier into the lower tier below.
People are increasingly becoming disenchanted with the game, every week arguments break out between the stewards and large sections of support over those that stand in front of the seating, with the bloke sat behind who had no intention of standing, forced into doing so if he wanted to see the game. I found it particularly interesting that the club with the most supporters of the petition was Manchester United, fans who have had their away ticket allocations cut for persistent standing, but support for the campaign comes at every level of football, a quick cursory glance at the petition and other forums hosting debate on this issue shows that there is definitely demand amongst fans to be given the choice to stand again.
To add your voice to the thousands who have so far, sign the petition at http://www.fsf.org.uk/petitions/safestanding.php?id=&page=sign
By Nicola Kilmore – Scunthorpe United fan – @footychick25