We have reflected once again this week on the legacies of Hillsborough a year after an independent panel exposed a top-level cover-up over England’s worst stadium disaster.
Unfortunately for the families of the 96 Liverpool fans who died at that fateful FA Cup semi-final in April 1989, the painstaking inquiry into alleged police misconduct is stymied in inaction or, at the very best, inertia.
While the relatives of the victims cannot move on without the requisite justice, the tragedy is also holding back a wider debate about safe standing.
The very notion of any reintroduction of standing is abhorrent to those directly affected by Hillsborough and this is understandable. It is a highly emotive issue. But we are not talking about a wholesale return to the bad old days when unregulated terraces allowed pockets of hooliganism to fester like sores on the game. The safe standing lobby, spearheaded by the Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF), is targeting 10 to 20 per cent of capacity at most.
The campaign, which is growing in momentum and could soon be introduced at Celtic after the Scottish Premier League sanctioned pilot schemes, is at its most basic a consumer-driven response.
Not all fans want to watch football the same way. Clubs are not serving the needs of all their customers if they insist everyone sits still for 90 minutes when a small, but significant, number would prefer to stand, sing and shout. It’s just bad business.
The truth is that many fans are out of their seats for large parts of the match anyway. “Persistent standing” is the bane of stewards’ lives up and down the country. Some clubs are more successful at policing it than others. Some have just accepted it as a fact of life. Cardiff City’s “singing sections” are an acknowledgement that standing is tolerated in designated areas despite the fact it is officially forbidden. Since 1994, following a change in legislation in response to Hillsborough and the subsequent Taylor Report, all clubs in the Premier League and the Championship must have all-seater stadiums.
It is not illegal for spectators to stand but, under a civil contract they effectively sign by buying a ticket, they can be thrown out. At Cardiff, they aren’t. It is a stance supported by the council after a club-commissioned study by Dr Steve Frosdick, an expert in crowd dynamics, concluded it would not compromise safety and might even improve it.
It would be an interesting test case if the Sports Ground Safety Authority (SGSA), a quango, challenged Cardiff’s interpretation of the law. Equally, if the SGSA lets it slide, it sets a precedent for others such as Aston Villa, Hull City, Sunderland, Swansea and Crystal Palace, the only other Premier League clubs to publicly back the FSF’s safe standing campaign.
As English football fans gaze enviously at Germany, where ticket prices are lower, atmospheres feel less corporate and the national team does not continually disappoint, it has not gone unnoticed that safe standing is a prominent feature.
Rail seats, which flip up for domestic games and lock down to comply with rules in the Champions League, are a popular innovation. Why not try them here?
Cardiff’s experiment has not resulted in more disorderly behaviour, a commonly cited counter-argument. The club earned the title of most family-friendly in the Football League last season.
As Superintendent Steven Graham, match day commander at the West Midlands Police and a proponent of safe standing, said: “If you put a decent person on a terrace, they’re a decent person. If you put someone with criminal intent in a seated area, they’re someone with criminal intent... To say that just because you put someone in a standing area, they will misbehave, is fundamentally wrong.”
In the long shadow cast by Hillsborough, it would be a brave government that amended the law only to have a major incident. Hugh Robertson, the sports minister, backed by the English leagues, prefers the status quo while pointing out that seated stadiums have improved the overall fan experience.
A lot has changed in football since the 1980s, however, and the game has thrived as a result. Resisting calls for safe standing trials runs contrary to the Premier League’s evolutionary ethos, which has underpinned its success.
There is an opportunity to reclaim the disenfranchised by reinventing some of the lost spirit of the terraces, minus the criminality, and democratising the match-day experience through increased capacity and lower prices. The memories of Hillsborough, as awful as they are, should not stand in the way of progress.
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