Is Safe Standing Debate Reaching New Heights?

Manchester United Supporters’ Trust (MUST) are attempting to finance the introduction of ‘safe standing’ areas at Old Trafford

Also in the news is that Bristol City are attempting to redevelop Ashton gate as a dual code stadium with standing facilities, so we could finally see a sudden, mainstream breakthrough on a topic that has been not so quietly bubbling under the surface of English football for some time.

The debate about ‘safe standing’ – a rather paradoxical term considering people stand at rock concerts, on public transport, during pre-season friendlies at Welling United and an unquantifiable amount of times throughout their daily routine without it ever becoming a serious risk to their health – is one CAS Trust have been trying to promote , or at least bring to a level where it can be openly and intelligently debated with all opinions considered.

Stan Dandeliver wrote an excellent for-and-against critique in TNT (Vol 3 p25-26), outlining and analysing the arguments from both sides. It is essentially a debate between those preferring freedom of choice over how they watch and participate in their football, and those who still hold understandable and emotional concerns about reverting to a policy that contributed to the Hillsborough disaster in 1989.

Perhaps, if we hadn’t seen a sharp revival in interest in the Sheffield tragedy last year when the Justice campaign successfully sought to open a new inquiry into the incompetency of the South Yorkshire Police, wounds would not be so tender in regards to reinstating standing areas,  and a less emotive discussion could be further along the line than it currently is.

safestandingFive paragraphs in, and perhaps it’s worth mentioning the technical aspect of ‘safe standing’. The most likely format for standing areas - be it at the Valley or Old Trafford -  would be the rail seats used in Germany. They are equipped with a foldable seat that can be lodged vertically and a steel railing in front for the individual’s protection, and of course, to lean on when it all gets a bit too much.

The versatile seat has proved a huge success in the Bundesliga -  a top flight quickly growing in reputation for its exceptional atmosphere. The rail seats are seen as a major contributor as German football continues to enjoy sell-out crowds.

Furthermore, despite initial concerns and a tradition of hooligan culture, standing areas have so far produced no pejorative effects in terms of violence, racism or crime.

So, given that we are now nearly a quarter of a century on from the Hillsborough disaster, there’s a growing argument in England that it’s time to reconsider the judgement of the 1990 Taylor report, which concluded that British stadia should adhere to the all-seater model.

We’ve learned the lessons of the tragic episode and, with the rail seat approach rather different from the more dangerously simplistic model of ramming as many paying spectators as possible into fenced cages, the chances of another crush in England are minimal. Our grounds are equipped with state-of-the-art CCTV equipment that can spot growing danger, and Police forces are much more sensitive to and better trained in the practices of crowd control. It’s also worth mention that German clubs will only fill standing areas to 95% capacity, something English clubs would surely also adopt.

At the same time, a poll by CAS Trust revealed that 75% of Charlton fans would support the introduction of standing areas at football stadia in the UK, and, from my own experience, the notion that nobody currently stands at football matches is simply untrue – I’ve never seen a fully-seated Upper North in all my years at the Valley, and I never expect or particularly want to. With that in mind, surely it makes more sense to facilitate standing for those who want to be on their feet, rather than insist upon the current unwritten convention of standing in seated areas, which must in itself be a greater risk to crowd safety.

As Stan Dandeliver also pointed out in his article however, a bigger issue than the opinions of the fanbase remains the motivation for clubs to willingly adopt a change in policy, not only because it would cause a controversial deviation of UK law. Standing areas, by nature, must come at a cheaper cost to supporters than those opting for seating.

And with Premier League gate tolls currently propelling upwards at an alarming rate, to such an extent that Arsenal’s cheapest season ticket costs £985 and even Crystal Palace’s come at £490, yet average prices have still risen 4% from last season, the chances of the majority of clubs giving the nod to safe seating areas, well aware of their negative stigmatism, for the sake of freedom of choice is incredibly slim -especially in the current climate, where corporate seating appears to be growing in influence by the game.

Until the recent revelation regarding the Red Devils, only Swansea City, Aston Villa and Sunderland of twenty Premier league clubs had backed plans to bring in standing areas.  But, with a club of Manchester United’s stature and clout now prepared to at least consider the issue, it could prove to be a breakthrough moment in terms of changing opinions at executive level.

The Premier League champions have unearthed a vital argument that could soon echo in the ears of other English clubs, with MUST’s Chief Executive Duncan Drasdo citing that the added atmosphere standing supporters tend to provide is something that would positively contribute to the Manchester United brand.

It’s a rather corporate view, but that appears to be the angle required to get boardrooms to start paying attention to the attitudes of their fan bases, a large proportion of which would be in favour of standing areas even if they wouldn’t participate in the practice themselves.

But there’s still a long way to go before words become actions. United’s owners, the infamous Glazer clan, have been at loggerheads with supporters ever since they bought the club on debt in 2005. The plans for fan-funded safe seating is seen as a way of bridging the gap between the two parties, but, having feuded for so long, it seems unlikely an agreement will be hatched until a level of mutual trust has been established.

That being said, there’s no doubt that MUST are making considerable ground in an ongoing process. For the biggest club in England to even discuss the notion of standing areas is something that would have seemed incomprehensible five years ago.

Now that the ghosts of Hillsborough are finally being put to rest and the reputation of the German model is ever-increasing in England, a future in which supporters are given a freedom of choice over how they enjoy their football in UK stadiums is fast becoming easier to envisage.