With trials for safe-standing areas being approved in the SPL, surely it is time for their English counterparts to move with the times
For over 20 years now, ever since the terrible scenes engrained on all of our minds of Hillsborough, where 96 Liverpool fans tragically lost their lives, standing areas have been absent from the top two divisions of English football. The Taylor Report - published in January 1990 – recommended to Her Majesty’s government that all major stadia in the top two English divisions be converted to all-seater arenas, removing standing areas altogether and thus preventing an awful tragedy such as Hillsborough from ever occurring again in the motherland of football.
Even now, 20 years on, the grieving families are still fighting for justice. As part of a generation that has lived with the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster and its effects whenever going to a football match in the highest two echelons of English football, I can, of course, see the reasoning for not having standing areas back in our game. At the end of the day, human life is precious and takes all priority over any result that occurs on the football pitch. However, news has recently circulated from north of the border in Scotland, where the recommendations of the Taylor Report were never taken up, probably due to the fervent Scottish desire to distance themselves as much as possible from the yoke of Westminster. There, the Scottish Premier League (SPL), responding to requests from the supporters of its clubs, is going to begin considering requests for the trailing of ‘safe’ standing areas, whatever that will entail. Neil Doncaster, the chief executive of the SPL, has said, "Since I joined the SPL in 2009, there has been widespread support amongst fans to reintroduce safe-standing areas. I am delighted that we have been able to respond positively to supporters' views on improving the match-day experience."
In so doing the SPL has, perhaps inadvertently, decided that the government’s insistent and fervent belief that standing at football matches was unsafe is perhaps not necessarily the case. Ever since the introduction of all-seater stadiums being a pre-requisite for clubs in both the Premier League and the Championship, a common complaint from supporters has centred around what has been gained in terms of safety has been lost to an extent in terms of atmosphere. People often complain that in the larger stadiums, there has been a loss of atmosphere to an extent with the lack of standing areas no longer bolstering the numbers and thus the decibel levels.
Yes, places like the Britannia stadium sometimes put places like the Emirates and Old Trafford to shame with the atmosphere produced, but for the most part, especially when talking to older generations or watching games from the archives, one gets the distinct impression that something has been irrevocably lost from our game with the loss of standing areas. What could be done? Well firstly technology nowadays is, needless to say, much better and much more suited to governing and administrating those who are allowed into a football match than it was in the 1980’s. From mighty Old Trafford down to the delightful Hawthorns, many stadia in the higher echelons of English football now have barcode readers into which supporters scan their tickets.
Therefore, as a result of this, the number and level of supporters allowed into any safe standing area could be properly controlled and maintained, thus making incidents such as the Hillsborough disaster as unlikely as possible in the future. In fact, it should be monitored and policed as if it were a stand. In many instances, fans stand up to cheer on their team anyway, so why not make an accommodation for those who, if they choose to, want to stand out of their own free will to cheer on their team and not get in the way of fellow supporters who wish to enjoy a game from the comfort of a seat? Impossible, you might say, for such an arrangement to happen in such a large and competitive league?
Well, there are numerous examples of safe standing areas on the continent of Europe, most prominently in Germany, a nation famed for following rules and regulations. There, stadia such as the Veltins-Arena in Gelsenkirchen, the heart of the industrial Ruhr, is populated by Schalke 04, and has in it’s North Stand the capacity for over 16,000 supporters to stand in safety, for an intriguing cost of just €15 (£13) a game. Similarly, the Imtech Arena in Hamburg, in the north of the country, has standing areas that allow around 5,500 supporters to stand and support their team in safety. In addition to this, a standing season ticket to see Borussia Dortmund, former European Champions no less, play 17 matches in the Bundesliga costs just €181, cheaper than a season ticket at struggling Blackburn Rovers, the cheapest alternative that the Premier League can offer. Last year, Dortmund fans even considered boycotting games due to the being asked to pay €22 (£19) for a standing ticket (Source: BBC Sport website).
By contrast, at the other end of the spectrum, Tottenham Hotspur’s cheapest season ticket is £690, champions Manchester United is £526, Liverpool’s is £725, Chelsea’s is £595, whilst it is Arsenal that claims the unfortunate and unwanted honour of being the most expensive in the Premier League, with season ticket prices STARTING at £951. Even newly-promoted Queens Park Rangers have somehow managed to justify charging their loyal fans £549 to see all their home games, £23 less than it costs to see the English champions (Source: Daily Telegraph website).
In an age of austerity, this is truly baffling, and perhaps goes to explain the advent of half-season tickets because, quite frankly, full season tickets are just too expensive nowadays. In my view, there are thus two principal factors for allowing standing areas back into the English game. Atmospheres, to an extent, have lost some of what makes them special, and so the re-introduction of safe standing areas may well be a big step into remedying this situation. Moreover, football has seen itself over the past decade to out price the ordinary person in the street who simply wants to see their team play. A by-product of safe standing areas, providing the lead from the continent is taken, is more affordable opportunities for those supporters who wish to stand at football games.
Of course, any advent in this area must surely be done in the correct way, with safety at the top of the list in regards to standing areas. But the continent has shown the British Isles the way in this respect, and with Scotland embracing these changes, how long will it be before those south of the border respond to the demand for stadium reform and follow suit?
Quotes taken from the Guardian website, the Daily Telegraph website and BBC Sport website.