Safe Standing Whole League Consultation ends today

Just before the turn of 2014, the Football League issued a consultation paper to all 72 professional clubs outside of the top flight, asking four key questions regarding the future of how fans should be allowed to watch their football in UK stadia

Should the Football League approach the Minister for Sport to request that the 'all-seater' stadia requirement for Championship clubs be reviewed with a view to the re-introduction of standing accommodation?

Should the Football League approach the Sports Grounds Safety Authority to request that rail seating products be licensed in Football League grounds?

Should clubs be permitted to accommodate supporters in rail seating in the Championship?

Should clubs be permitted to revert from seating to standing accommodation in League One and League Two following relegation from the Championship?

We are yet to hear the clubs’ responses, but a number of Football League clubs, including Yeovil, Peterborough, Burnley, DerbyCounty and Portsmouth, have actively backed calls for a re-introduction of standing areas to their respective stadia in the last few weeks, and others are expected to soon follow suit.

The issue of how we choose to watch our football, or indeed, whether we should be given the choice or whether it should be a decision left for the authorities, has been bubbling under the surface of English football for some time, with campaigns such as the Safe Standing Roadshow, headed by the Football Supporters Federation, gaining rapid momentum over the last few years.

In December 2012, The Telegraph reported that victims and relatives of victims of the Hillsborough disaster had condemned those who supported the notion of deviating back to a policy that accommodated the greatest English stadium tragedy of the 20th century.

You can certainly understand their point of view. On an emotive level, reinstating standing areas has been judged by some as disrespectful to the 96 Liverpool supporters who lost their lives in April 1989, whilst others perceive it as simply an accident waiting to happen - after all, it was the subsequent Taylor report produced a year later which ruled all-seated stadia must be compulsory for English football clubs on grounds of public safety.

But, as the families of those bereaved finally receive a level of closure from the Yorkshire tragedy following an inquest in September 2012 which determined no wrongdoing of the Liverpool faithful and uncovered a subsequent cover-up by the South Yorkshire Police Force, wounds have begun to heal, and the safe standing discussion has slowly begun to reach out of Hillsborough’s haunting shadow.

The history of the disaster is being rewritten in a more accurate and revised context, and Peter Caton, author of Stand Up Sit Down: A Choice To Watch Football, has argued that fighting against the safe standing campaign is actually harming this process.

As the late Justice campaigner Sheila Coleman put it in 2012:  “We don’t want the standing issue to be used as a diversion from the investigations that are ongoing at the moment. We need to be clear: standing didn’t kill people at Hillsborough, it was other factors.” In essence, the idea that standing at football matches contributed to the tragedy in fact takes away from its real causes, and furthermore alleviates culpability from those at fault for failing to administrate appropriate crowd control and safety measures on that infamous Sheffield afternoon.

Even if a culture of standing had contributed to the Hillsborough disaster, our police forces are surely better trained and more technologically equipped to prevent a repeat. Standing happens at music festivals, gigs and concerts on a routine basis, yet crushes are at worst an anomalous occurrence.

Not that the Hillsborough incident is the only cause for concern regarding the growing calls for standing areas. The unsupervised terraces of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and the intense environment that was allowed to thrive within them, contributed to a culture of footballing thuggery and hooliganism that many believe will  resurface if spectators are given the option of watching their football in large standing groups where a pack mentality can take over.

At the same time, over the last two decades, English clubs from the Premier League to the Conference, arguably none more so than Charlton Athletic, have made an active effort to include women, children and ethnic minorities in an environment that has traditionally been dominated by white, working class adult males. Reverting  to the more brutish and male-accommodating model of standing would surely go against a lot of this hard work and long-existing projects of social inclusion.

But from the evidence we’ve received thus far, that seems equally as unlikely as another crush in a UK stadium. Germany has an equally entrenched history of terrace violence, yet the Bundesliga is famed for its introduction of rail seats – an allocated seat which can be folded vertically, thus allowing the supporter to stand, with a protective rail in front – and is still waiting any notable escalation in hooliganism, racism or crime.

Rather, the German seating model is now highly-sought throughout Europe, due to the manner in which it has increased average attendances and created electrifying atmospheres, thus boosting the Bundesliga’s popularity at home and abroad.

Similarly, the fight-back against hooliganism in the 1990s has pushed the trend more commonly into the lower tiers of English football (I guess it’s harder to get motivated for a post-match bust-up when Premier League clubs are serving caviar and prawn cocktails at half-time). But League One and League Two clubs are already allowed standing areas under UK law – they’re authorised to be in the Championship for three seasons before having to adhere to the all-seater model.

Even with that in mind, a Home Office survey in 2010 showed that the rate of arrests were higher at all-seater grounds in Leagues One and Two than those which contained standing sections.

And it’s not only standing stadia that have facilitated fatal disasters.  in 2001, South Africa’s Ellis Stadium - an all-seater which featured at the 2010 World Cup – housed a tragedy in which 41 spectators lost their lives. It was later revealed this was due to overcrowding and breaching its maximum 60,000 capacity -  the same cause of the Hillsborough disaster twelve years earlier.

There are other examples too, including 66 deaths at Ibrox in 1971 caused by fans falling on the stairway, 73 deaths in PhilSports Stadium, the Philippines, as a result of a stampede in 2006, and 11 deaths before a concert by The Who in an all-seater Ohio stadium in 1979.

Some have even suggested that  introducing standing areas would be far safer. The idea that no one currently stands at Championship and Premier League matches is simply untrue, and if these fans are going to bend the rules anyway, we may as well grant them their wish by providing facilities that actually protect their safety and those around them.

So we are yet to receive the latest verdict on safe standing, but to date, only one club in England has actively opposed its introduction – Liverpool.

With that in mind, in addition to the overwhelming evidence that standing with the proper regulations in place would not dangerously inhibit public safety or create an environment that sends us back to the dark days of terrace hooliganism, the chances of an outcome supporting the standing campaign is looking incredibly likely.