Football Crazy, Football Mad: Safe Standing

Standing. I’m not a massive fan of it generally – takes up too much energy. But when it comes to my deepest love, i.e. watching my football team, I’m all for it. And I’m not the only one.

Sitting down at matches is the norm in the top leagues of British football, but in recent years there has been a push for “safe standing” sections of stadiums, usually in the style of rail seating. Rail seating consists of rails, funnily enough, which come up to about waist height between each row. There are seats attached to these rails, but they are secured upwards and out of the way. In European matches, at which seats are compulsory, they are unlocked. This system is in place in stadiums across mainland Europe, and is hugely popular among fans. Most famously, German giants Borussia Dortmund’s “Yellow Wall” is the stuff of legends and the envy of every support – a 25,000 capacity standing terrace known for its electric atmosphere.

At the beginning of last season, Celtic opened a safe standing area for close to 3,000 fans in the corner where ultras group the Green Brigade traditionally sit. Demand for season tickets was intense, and so far the move has been a resounding success. It’s not hard to see why – the buzz in a standing crowd is noticeably stronger than in people sitting down, and the atmosphere in the ground is only improved by having a few thousand dancing supporters.

Celtic so far are the only team in top flight British football to implement safe standing, but it seems others might soon follow suit. Aberdeen have indicated they want a safe standing section in their planned new stadium, and West Brom are currently battling the governmental Sports Grounds Safety Association to be able to build 3,600 rail seats.  At the time of writing, a petition to the government to permit safe standing at grounds in England has over 60,000 signatures. The demand is most definitely there.

Yet I can well understand that some fans have reservations about introducing safe standing. Before all seater stadiums, many grounds were real-life death traps. With nothing stopping fans from lurching up and down the rows, crushes were all too easy and, tragically, sometimes fatal. The most infamous of these disasters is, of course, Hillsborough.

In 1989, 96 Liverpool fans died at Hillsborough Stadium after police officers opened the gates into already overcrowded pens. Fans entered the pens, unaware that supporters at the front were being trampled. It was the worst disaster in British sporting history.

Following the disaster, an inquest was conducted which led to the banning of standing sections in the top two tiers of English and Welsh football, and the Scottish Premier League made all-seater stadiums a requirement of league membership. Yet standing itself wasn’t the cause of the tragedy. It was a failure of the police, who showed gross incompetence and negligence, and then covered it up. It was a failure of design, with fencing that prevented fans from escaping onto the pitch and pens that did not have a joining corridor at the front end, meaning they had nowhere to go. It was a failure of stewards who allowed fans in without tickets despite the obvious safety concerns about overcrowding. I sympathise completely with those who worry that similar tragedies could happen again in the future, but so much is different in policing, in safety regulations and in the safe standing model that this seems impossible.

And unfortunately, as things stand all seater stadiums aren’t necessarily all that safe – crowded stands and poor designs can make getting to and from your seat tricky even without any post-goal celebration mania. I’ve been to stadiums where there isn’t room for my short-arse to sit down without my knees in the back of someone’s skull, never mind everyone else taller than 5”3. At Fir Park, Motherwell’s home ground, there isn’t even space for people to pass each other in the rows, so fans have to walk on the seats to get by. Plus, away fans tend not to sit down regardless, meaning they’re standing and jumping in sections not designed for them to do that leading to all sorts of minor injuries. More than once I’ve had to try to prop up guys twice my size who’ve got a bit overeager and fell on me from a row or two above. It’s just not safe.

Safe standing will never be for everyone. Even besides the justifiable concerns that fan groups have considering the history of disasters, there are those who cannot stand for 90 minutes for health reasons, young families and people who just prefer having the relative comfort of a seat under their backside. But where fans are already standing or where seating is unfit for purpose, safe standing offers a radical alternative. In these cases it is genuinely safer, with the added bonus of boosting to the match day atmosphere.  

It appears as though clubs are moving towards safe seating, both in Scotland and England. Only a few weeks ago, Hillsborough survivors and families of victims attended a Celtic game in the standing section to experience it for themselves. While there is not, and likely will never be, an absolute consensus on the right answer, more and more fans are backing the change, including at Liverpool. And that includes me, even if it means I have to bring a step ladder to see what’s going on.

[Louise Wylie – @womanpendulum]

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