Safe Standing, Twenty Years On From Hillsborough

I heaved and strained, my body wouldn’t move an inch. Those pressed tight around me were heavy, some were unconscious. I began to float away, taking in the final seconds of my life.

Hillsborough Memorial

Hillsborough Memorial

This is the recollection from one Liverpool survivor of the terrible events at Hillsborough Stadium, Sheffield, on April 15th 1989. Lord Taylor’s sweeping report on the disaster led to the ban on standing areas at the top two divisions in English football, amongst many measures adopted that led to the transformation of British stadia in the 1990s.  The dilapidated grounds that disgraced the game in the 1980s and led to several tragedies were soon swept away.

Eastville Stadium Fire (view from the Tote End), Bristol 1980

Eastville Stadium Fire (view from the Tote End), Bristol 1980

The Hillsborough disaster became seared in national consciousness as a turning point for the game to the bright lights of the Premier League, and standing on terraces became tarred in the general public’s consciousness with the tragedies and hooliganism of the 1980s, rightly or wrongly. All-seater stadia priced out many traditional fans, and terrace culture was seemingly lost forever at the highest levels of British football.

With the twentieth anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster approaching, it would seem to be curious timing for a return to standing to be on the national agenda again.

But that’s exactly what is happening.

The movement towards reintroducing standing at the top levels of English football is gaining momentum. A little lower in the ladder, this month it was announced that League Two’s Morecambe are set to become the first English league club to incorporate safe standing areas into their new stadium.

Perhaps more significantly, especially given their proximity to Anfield, Everton’s chief executive Keith Wyness told a parliamentary seminar his club would consider including safe standing areas at their new ground.

“As you can all imagine, this is a very sensitive issue because of where we are situated. We are looking for a new stadium and one of our options is that we could have a standing area.

“I personally went to Germany recently and watched a game at Cologne and was amazed by the atmosphere in the standing area.

“If the Government will discuss it, we may be prepared to offer ourselves as a trial if necessary.”

Everton's proposed new stadium
Everton’s proposed new stadium

Advocates of a return to standing, such as the Football Supporters Federation (FSF), have the support of most football fans (according to a 2007 census) in pushing for this debate.  These advocates are always careful to pay respect to the emotional context of Hillsborough. The FSF’s comprehensive 2007 report on the case for safe standing is prefaced by Dr. Ann Eyre, a survivor of Hillsborough who after touching on the tragedies that plagued British football stadia in the 1980s, maintains that “I believe that the case for safe standing to be introduced at our major grounds needs to be carefully weighed and considered.”

The FSF report notes that nowhere in his report on the causes of the disaster did Lord Taylor attribute it to the fact the Liverpool fans were in a standing, rather than a seated, area of the ground. To emphasise this, the report noted that nowhere in his report did Lord Taylor blame standing as a primary cause of the disaster.  Instead, a series of tragic mistakes by the authorities were deemed responsible, as his report states:

265. The immediate cause of the gross overcrowding and hence the disaster was the failure, when gate C was opened, to cut off access to the central pens which were already overfull.

266. They were already overfull because no safe maximum capacities had been laid down, no attempt was made to control entry to individual pens numerically and there was no effective visual monitoring of crowd density.

267. When the influx from gate C entered pen 3, the layout of the barriers there afforded less protection than it should and a barrier collapsed. Again, the lack of vigilant monitoring caused a sluggish reaction and response when the crush occurred. The small size and number of gates to the track retarded rescue efforts. So, in the initial stages, did lack of leadership.

268. The need to open gate C was due to dangerous congestion at the turnstiles. That occurred because, as both Club and police should have realised, the turnstile area could not easily cope with the large numbers demanded of it unless they arrived steadily over a lengthy period. The Operational Order and police tactics on the day failed to provide for controlling a concentrated arrival of large numbers should that occur in a short period. That it might so occur was foreseeable and it did. The presence of an unruly minority who had drunk too much aggravated the problem. So did the Club’s (Sheffi eld Wednesday FC) confused and inadequate signs and ticketing.

The deeper causes of the disaster laid not in standing per se, but in the complete disregard for fan safety typical of the attitude of the football authorities in their 1980s towards their customers, who were treated more like a burden barely to be tolerated. Sheffield Wednesday’s safety certificate for Hillsborough was out of date, and the capacities for the pens at the Leppings Lane end were set far too high. Taylor’s report castigated the club for its serious breaches of the safety code.

Another key point the FSF report makes is that Taylor’s recommendation for all-seater stadia to be introduced in Britain was based on what has been proven to be an incorrect assumption: that “spectators will become accustomed and educated to sitting.”

As the FSF notes, and as anyone who attends matches in England can attest, this has not proven to be the case for a large minority of fans: “It is now clear with the benefit of hindsight that this prediction was wrong. Eleven seasons on from the introduction of all-seated stadia in the top two divisions, significant groups of fans regularly stand at matches.”

This creates a serious safety issue in itself and a problem for fans nearby who do want to sit with an unobstructed view. As the Stand Up Sit Down campaign argues, the law is currently not in tune with the reality of football supporters experiences, who wish to either stand or sit safely and comfortably.

Meanwhile, the model of the Bundesliga — with their technologically impressive convertible standing/seating areas to meet UEFA mandates for European matches — has been much praised by advocates of standing. Schalke 04′s amazing Veltins-Arena can accommodate 61,524 spectators (standing and seated) for Bundesliga games, and 53,994 for European matches. Domestically, the North stand provides standing (capacity: 16,307) and is converted to seats for European competition (capacity: 8,600).

The remarkable Veltins-Arena, home of Shalke 04, in its hockey configuration

The remarkable Veltins-Arena, home of Schalke 04, in its hockey configuration

The FSF report has had a considerable impact on the debate in the public sphere.  Praising the FSF report, football’s self-regulatory body the Independent Football Commission concluded that “It is difficult to find any sort of evidence which indicates that allowing people to stand in a seating area is inherently unsafe.”

An Early Day Motion to remove the ban on standing is gaining momentum in the House of Commons.

Aside from safety, the question of cost is a serious issue. Safe standing would increase revenue by increasing capacity with thousands of extra tickets possible in the same space, but at lower price points, and the kind of convertible seating that has worked in Germany (meeting the UEFA mandate for all-seater games in European competition while converting to standing for domestic games) is not cheap. A 2001 study by the Football Licensing Authority into the convertible “Kombi” seating in Hamburg noted the “Kombi” seats cost £90 each, which compares with around £21 for a typical tip up seat.

Kombi convertible seating in Germany

Kombi convertible seating in Germany

English stadiums would require significant work to make them safe for standing, as Simon Inglis told Play the Game:

“I am in favour in principle but because I understand the technical issues I simply can’t see it happening in the UK. It would require legislation, and which government would give up time to achieve this whilst the Premier League is coining it in

“Then there would be the question of clubs paying to convert existing seating areas. They could not hold more people than currently sit or the loadings would be too heavy. Exits, etc, would have to be modified. It’s no simple matter.”

It could well be that the cost of this investment would be worth the extra value of supporter-satisfaction and the increase in a vibrant atmosphere standing undoubtedly brings. Bundesliga stadia are admired across Europe as the fan-friendliest, as SoccerLens recently propounded: “The average attendance for a Bundesliga match in 2008 was 40,880 compared to the 35,269 in the Premier League – the atmosphere is second to none with supporters having the option to stand on the terraces and have their beer topped up for you from the numerous vendors dotted around — plus there’s not a prawn sandwich to be seen.”

Indeed, it’s almost become a European cliche to praise the atmosphere of the Bundesliga over the Premier League.

FC AUGSBURG - Carl Zeiss Jena 1:2

It seems unlikely that current British stadia will be retrofitted for standing, and with Hillsborough still so vivid in the public memory, it would take some balls from a British government to push through legislation to allow standing at the top levels again — even though most football fans are for it, it’s their opinions still least often considered important by the authorities (a shameful echo of the fact that the true cause of Hillsborough was not standing, but the lack of respect for football fans collectively).

Can Morecambe’s stadium set an example for safe standing in the league, albeit at a lower level?  Will Everton ever be able to push on and become the guinea pig for constructing a Bundesliga-type convertible standing model in the Premier League?

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