Could we be seeing the return of legal standing at British football matches?

For decades, the best grounds have been ‘seating only’, however much fans wanted to stand. As this season ends, Christopher Beanland asks if they’ll ever get their goal

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The Independent Online

In the days before Hillsborough brought grief to Liverpool, rules about – and standards of – stadium safety had remained hardly changed since the days of Roy of The Rovers. But from the 1990s onwards, things drastically changed in football. In the wake of the Taylor Report, all sorts of rules were proposed. And although the report didn’t directly say that standing was a problem, the government at the time took the decision to phase out standing in Tiers 1 and 2 (today’s Premier League and Championship).

Crush barriers and cages that kept fans within pens, some of which were installed as anti-hooliganism devices in the Seventies and Eighties, were also banned; and alcohol sales were restricted, too. So many clubs upgraded stadia, while many more – Arsenal, Derby, Reading, Man City, for example – built new grounds compliant with the new rules. But could standing now be coming back at British football matches?

In a sense it never went away: at grounds up and down the country, every Saturday, fans stand – but mostly that’s in contravention of the regulations. Now, there seems to be a movement building to get to where one can stand without breaking the rules. But will standing shoot football back to the bad old days of crushes and scrapping – or can it be managed in new, safer ways?

Grimsby Town is one of the clubs that think it can. “We’ve put a suggestion out there in response to what the supporters wanted. The biggest thing that came back from a survey we did was that they wanted some form of standing,” says Nick Dale, who manages Grimsby’s Blundell Park ground. “It happens unofficially the length and breadth of the country – clubs are forced to contravene their licences – but if all the fans stand up, it’s safer to allow it to continue. You have analyse the risk factor and manage it.”

They were unlucky at Grimsby. When the rules were changed they were in English football’s second tier (now the Championship). Since then, the club has had a bad run and ended up in the fifth tier (now the Conference). But if they got promoted to the fourth tier (League Two), they’d still have to abide by the rules that say first and second tier clubs must have all-seating grounds, because Grimsby spent more than three years in that second tier. Confused? So are the fans. Other clubs in Leagues One and Two have standing areas, and Morecambe has built a stadium with a big standing zone.

So, Grimsby would need a rule change for fans to stand. But they’re not even considering standing areas per se, so much as “rail seats”, which German clubs such as Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund use. These hybrids can be sat on during Champions League or Europa League games – as Uefa demands all-seated matches in these competitions – or folded up to create standing spots during domestic Bundesliga matches. “For Grimsby, we could go back to a version of standing. We originally looked at the rail seat – a rail per row. You put thought in about how to install them, and they’re very effective and very safe,” reckons Dale.

However, the Hillsborough Families Support Group has come out against standing and wants all-seated stadiums to stay. In the light of that, says Dale, “we have to be very sensitive”. And Michael Brunskill, of the Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF), agrees. But he adds that, even in Liverpool, “a lot of fans acknowledge there’s a place for standing”.

 

Surveys done by the FSF have shown that nine out of 10 fans are in favour of standing. Why? “Atmosphere’s the main reason,” says Brunskill. “If you’re in church, you stand up to sing a hymn. It generates spectacle. Standing areas could possibly help to reduce prices, too  – traditionally they’re cheaper than seating areas.” And on top of that, “You can stand at a football ground to see a pop concert but during a football game you can’t.” Nor is the heat on this issue only generated by fans. Premier League clubs such as Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Burnley all support safe standing – and it’s likely they’d be among the first to introduce it if the law was amended.

Meanwhile, Wales seems to be taking the biggest steps towards approving standing at games. Cardiff is in the English second tier (Championship) but tolerates standing in one section of its terraces. Members in the country’s devolved Welsh Assembly have also put their weight behind a trial. So we might soon see the return of legal standing at football matches. And some supporters would consider that a great final result.

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