Football supporters call out a Tory government for “declaring war on fans”. No, not a headline from the 1980s but a rallying cry last week from the Football Supporters’ Federation after sports minister Tracey Crouch vetoed an application by Premier League side West Bromwich Albion to trial safe standing in a section of their home ground, the Hawthorns.
Crouch further angered campaigners for rail seating – the model widely used in Germany and around Europe, and introduced in 2016 by Celtic in Scotland – by claiming that only a “vocal minority” back the move and confirming that the government had no plans to change the current all-seater policy at top-flight stadiums.
Her clumsy response was criticised by supporters and safety experts, and an online petition has quickly amassed more than 70,000 signatures to trigger a parliamentary debate on the issue.
As a Liverpool fan who survived the crush in pen three at Hillsborough I was happy to sign that petition. Hillsborough didn’t happen because standing areas are inherently unsafe, it happened because the stadium was unsafe and because the agencies charged with ensuring the safety of supporters were grossly negligent. It was a disaster caused by very specific failures, but it suited governments to cloud the issue and all-seater stadiums became part of the political weather.
Now that lie is exposed, Crouch is flirting with another. As Jon Darch, operator of the Safe Standing Roadshow, argued: “Her claims that we are a vocal minority are simply untrue. Every survey shows that 80-90% of fans are in favour of safe standing.” Then there are the supporters who have agonised over the issue more than any other: last July, the Liverpool fans’ group Spirit of Shankly found that 88% of its members backed rail seating.
The case for safe standing is compelling. With rail seating, a fan is allocated a standing spot in front of a seat that has been folded up and locked (it can be unfolded for European games because Uefa, European football’s governing body, requires grounds to be all-seater). Our larger modern grounds could accommodate 1.8 people standing where only one would sit, enabling clubs to increase attendances and lower ticket prices. Lost ticket revenues can be offset by higher spending on food and drink, programmes and merchandise.
There is a cultural imperative too: standing areas encourage people to express themselves more freely than they would sitting down. And they allow for greater socialisation – whereby children and young adults learn from the behaviour of their elders.
It is increasingly important to acknowledge that passionate support for a cause is not a negative. The ability to let off steam in a controlled environment is an important release and standing areas at football encourage this. Many fathers also derive self-worth from introducing their children to the customs and rituals they have fashioned at football, or inherited from their own fathers who once stood on terraces. Culture or subculture, this is a form of expression – and it allows parents to reveal a glimpse of themselves that their children might never see elsewhere.
But in our sanitised, all-seater stadiums, these family bonds are being eroded. In 2013, research by ICM for Capital One, then sponsors of the League Cup, found that while 48% of children attended their first match with their dads, only 20% went on to support the same team as their fathers. The endless repositioning of football to be filtered through a TV lens is leading children to treat our national sport not as a shared cultural experience, but as just another form of entertainment. And they are shopping around: the same survey found that only 39% of those children went on to support their local team.
As a Hillsborough survivor, I do not need reminding that safety at football is paramount. But there is no evidence that rail seating is unsafe; the only clear risk is that we are failing to trust people. As Judith Hackitt, chair of the Health and Safety Executive, has consistently warned, children and young adults are being failed when they are overprotected because the idea of risk should exist in our daily lives, so that we learn to negotiate it – as the campaigners for safe standing have done.
It is a personal gamble for any politician to repeal the all-seater stadium law. So why not hand the issue to a football taskforce? Such a step would depoliticise the debate.
The Hillsborough inquests finally persuaded the public that the disaster was not the fault of supporters – the blame lay entirely with the authorities. It is time the government stopped confusing a crowd with a mob, and grasped the value in football as culture.
I agree with Darch when he says: “I’d like to see the government commit to gaining empirical evidence of how a safe standing area can work in England, and reconsider the West Brom application.” At the very least, they owe us a fair hearing now.
And the Sun Shines Now: How Hillsborough and the Premier League Changed Britain by Adrian Tempany (Faber) was shortlisted for the 2017 Orwell prize.