Should English football bring back standing areas in stadiums?

In 1990, the official inquiry into the Hillsborough Disaster, known as the Taylor report, as well as blaming the disaster on poor policing, and the layout and method of entry to Hillsborough, recommended that all English football stadiums convert to become all-seater, in an effort to improve fan safety.

Currently, all Premier League clubs and Championship clubs that have been in the Championship for three years are required to have all-seater stadiums. Clubs in League One and League Two, as well as those in the non-leagues are not required to have all-seater stadiums. The reason that these clubs are allowed to keep standing areas is because they cannot afford the costs required to install seats in all parts of the ground.

That in itself makes the all-seater rule a bit strange. The rules were ostensibly introduced because it was implied that standing sections are unsafe (though Taylor’s report made no such claim), but in allowing the lower league and non-league clubs to keep their terraces, it could be interpreted as saying that the safety of those fans either depends on the quality of their team, or that it doesn’t matter at all, which is obviously wrong.

The advent of all-seater stadiums coincided with (and maybe contributed to) a boom in the popularity of English football. With clubs having got serious about taking measures to reduce hooliganism, the perception amongst fans was that it was much safer to attend football matches than before. The demographic of fans attending matches changed too. Football in England went from a sport attended by mostly working-class men to one which appealed to everyone. Far more women and children attend matches now than ever before, and in general, football has a much more family-friendly atmosphere than it once did.

All-seater stadiums have not proved popular with all fans though. Many people believe that English football has become too sanitised, making the atmosphere in matches too sterile. There are many who want to be given the option to stand up at football matches as they believe that the atmosphere is better in standing areas and it makes for a more enjoyable experience. The Football Supporters Federation (FSF) has launched a petition among fans to get the rules changed so safe standing sections can be introduced into English grounds, giving fans the choice of whether they want to stand or not.

What is not being proposed is a return to the old terrace system in English football, where some of the terraces were crumbling wrecks, where fans were herded in like cattle and treated as such. Those kinds of standing areas have been consigned to the dark ages, where they belong. What is being proposed is a modern alternative that can be safely policed.

From what I gather the proposed system consists of rows of standing spaces with a rail in front of and behind each space. This would prevent any crushes or forward surges that would compromise safety. Each rail has a seat locked into it, so those that don’t want to stand don’t have to, and so the stadium is compliant with competitions that don’t allow standing areas, such as UEFA competitions. The seating is at a slightly steeper angle to allow those fans wishing to sit, to see over the rail in front of them.

This proposal has been met with a mixture of support and opposition from fans. Opponents of safe standing say that the safety risks are too great to even consider such a plan, and that bringing back terracing could spark a return to the dark days of hooliganism.

As a Liverpool fan, when standing is mentioned, the horror of Hillsborough immediately comes to mind. But, Hillsborough was largely due to the incompetent policing on the day, which caused crushes outside the ground and then failed to stop fans going into the already full central pens, and the barriers in front of the pitch that caused the crushes. Hillsborough didn’t happen because the people in the Leppings Lane end were standing up.

The reaction to a possible return to standing here in Liverpool has been one of scepticism. Understandably, the Hillsborough Family Support Group are completely against any return to standing, and that’s enough for some Liverpool fans to be completely against it too. Many Liverpool fans have the attitude of “never again” when it comes to standing. Most of these fans seem to forget that a little over a month after Hillsborough the Kop was packed to capacity for the title deciding game against Arsenal, and that the Kop remained a terrace for 5 years after Hillsborough, so if people were able to move on back then, why not now?

One of the main arguments used by those in favour of re-introducing standing is to look at the example of stadiums which provide standing areas for fans safely and successfully. Many good examples of this exist in Germany. In the Bundesliga, at least 10% of all tickets are for standing areas. Borussia Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park (Westfalonstadium) has an amazing 25,000 capacity standing area; Schalke’s VELTINS-arena has a stand with 16,300 standing places. I’ve seen the standing areas in Munich’s Allianz Arena, which hold about 21,000 fans in total.

These standing areas can be converted into seats where necessary, and most importantly, are safe. I read an article about German terraces where Schalke and Borussia Dortmund were asked about the number of injuries caused by standing. Schalke didn’t have a single accident they attributed to standing, Dortmund had stopped keeping statistics about accidents due to standing because there weren’t any. If clubs in Germany, many of which that have stadiums with capacities exceeding their English counterparts can make standing sections work, why can’t English clubs do the same?

Of course fan safety should be top priority for the authorities. However, there is no way to make any building that holds thousands of people 100% safe. The only way to guarantee safety in a football stadium would be to not allow anyone in. I don’t see any reason why a strictly regulated, properly policed and stewarded, standing area would be any more dangerous than an equivalent seated area.

The safety argument also comes a bit unstuck when you consider that in many other popular spectator sports in the UK, spectators are allowed to stand. If standing was so unsafe, why doesn’t the government prevent fans from standing in any sport?

I’m far from convinced that a return to standing areas will signal a rise in hooliganism, as I don’t believe that incidences of hooliganism decreased because of the advent of all-seater stadiums. To suggest that standing up was the catalyst for hooliganism is an insult to the millions of fans who peacefully watched games from a terrace without the thought of violence, racism or other anti-social behaviours ever crossing their minds. Hooliganism decreased because the clubs finally took measures to prevent it. The level and standard of policing and stewarding in the grounds has dramatically improved, and the number of security cameras in and around the grounds has helped in identifying the troublemakers and allowing the clubs to ban them.

All-seater stadiums have not stopped people from standing up during the matches anyway. Despite the risk of being ejected for persistent standing, some fans stand continuously during games, blocking the view of others and causing arguments and most fans will stand when there is a corner or some other goalmouth action, and will stand celebrating a goal. When fans stand there is a risk of people injuring themselves on the seat in front, or falling over the seat in front and this could in theory cause a domino effect, which could potentially be very dangerous. By providing fans who wish to stand with a place to do so, this problem would go away.

While I certainly believe that the argument to bring back standing in top-flight English football grounds deserves more debate at least, I can’t see it happening anytime soon. There is just no incentive for clubs to change from their current all-seater configurations, as it would cost the club money to convert, but they wouldn’t see any financial reward for it.

Where this proposal may be worth a trial is if a club comes up to the Championship, whose stadium currently has a standing area. Last season, League Two side Morecambe moved into a new stadium, the Globe Arena, with a safe standing section, but Morecambe only draw small crowds so I doubt that too many conclusions can be drawn from their experience.

I also doubt that even if a club did provide a standing area, they’d be willing to drop their prices, as again, they have no incentive to. Why would a club decide to lower prices, when they have fans willing to pay full price for tickets every game? The German clubs mentioned charge very little for entry into one of the standing areas (I think when I went to the Allianz Arena it was only 8 to get in). However the Bundesliga is renowned for being fan-friendly, where in the Premier League, unfortunately fan-experience is way below money-making on the list of priorities for most clubs.

I definitely believe that fans should be given the choice between standing or sitting (or both). It’s true that football matches are much safer than they were 25 years ago. I believe that is due to improved policing and stewarding inside stadiums and clubs having largely driven out the hooligan element. I don’t believe that increased safety is necessarily due to all-seater stadiums and as such, I don’t believe that introducing a safe standing section in stadiums would compromise safety.