Liverpool fans set to back safe standing
Views of Anfield regulars could decide whether the Premier League changes policy, writes Jim White
Liverpool supporters are expected to back the introduction of safe standing areas into Premier League and Championship stadiums tomorrow, with the move described as a “game changer” in how the country has watched football in the near three decades since the Hillsborough disaster. Fans have been canvassed via an online poll.
David Rose, of the Football Supporters’ Federation, which has long campaigned for the provision of safe standing in English grounds, said: “There has been a momentum around the idea for a while now. But for obvious reasons, the feelings of Liverpool supporters were central to the debate. This could be a game changer.”
The Taylor Report into the disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans were killed on the Leppings Lane terrace at an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest in April 1989, led to clubs being legally obliged to develop all-seat stadiums.
In his report, Lord Justice Taylor noted that fans used to standing up at matches would soon accept the idea of sitting down.
But while there have been massive changes in the standard of facilities at grounds across the country, fans still habitually stand up, often leading to conflict with those who prefer to remain seated.
To resolve such issues, campaigners believe the best solution is to introduce rail-seating systems like those used in the German Bundesliga.
These consist of flip-down seats that can be screwed into an upright position, enabling fans to stand in front of them. It is not a return to old-style terracing, but a flexible procedure that provides safe accommodation for those wishing to stand.
However on Merseyside, where many of the Hillsborough victims’ families considered the introduction of allseat stadiums as the most tangible legacy of their loss, for years there was widespread resistance.
After the inquest verdict of April 2016, however, many Liverpool fans felt it was right to engage in debate on the issue. And following a meeting with representatives of the families last weekend, the Spirit of Shankly supporters group opened its poll on the subject online this week.
The result will be delivered tomorrow.
This week, Tottenham Hotspur’s public relations department posted a picture on social media of rail seats being installed in the club’s new stadium. The caption revealed that it was an experiment; “future-proofing” was the phrase used. Nevertheless, the very fact the new White Hart Lane is being tested in this way to ensure that it might meet potential demand marked a significant moment in the campaign to introduce safe standing into English football.
When Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium was opened in 2006, there was no suggestion that it might have such provision. Back then, standing at football was associated with the bad old days of crumbling, urine-flooded terraces, of discomfort and danger. The new, all-seat stadiums gave an architectural statement of changed values: in the modern world, there was no place for standing at the game. But over the past year, those who had long backed the idea of giving fans the option of remaining vertical while watching a match have seen attitudes change dramatically. The Football League consulted its members to discover they overwhelmingly supported such an idea; the Welsh government has made the introduction of safe standing official policy; individual Premier League club executives, such as Manchester United’s Ed Woodward, have come out in support of the proposition: the momentum is gathering at a pace many now believe to be unstoppable.
“It used to be a closed door,” said David Rose, of the Football Supporters’ Federation. “Now I think the consensus has changed and there is a real sense that if football wants safe standing, it will happen.”
Rose traces the shift in attitudes to the beginning of last season, when a safe-standing section was introduced at Celtic Park. Glasgow City Council had long worried that mass standing in seated areas was fundamentally unsafe, with the danger of tripping over the seats genuine and ever present. So persistent was the habit at their home matches that the club, threatened by the council with the withdrawal of appropriate licensing consent, installed at the beginning of last season a section of rail seating, like that in wide use in the Bundesliga. This involves metal rails into which flip-down seats can be locked in place, effectively providing crash barriers on every step. It proved an immediate success. Those who enjoyed standing flocked to the area, leaving those who preferred to watch sat down with their view unencumbered. What is more, gathering together in one place, the 2,600 noisy standers significantly improved the atmosphere. Plus, there was tangible social benefit: given that the club charged no more than £26 for a ticket, many who had been previously unable to afford the cost of a conventional seat were able to return to the ground. So successful was the experiment, it was made permanent, beginning this coming season.
Many representatives from English clubs and supporters organisations have journeyed to Glasgow to inspect the new facility. David Gold, the chairman of West Ham, saw its merit in resolving the kind of conflict that erupted at the London Stadium soon after his club moved there, when fans used to standing at the Boleyn Ground found themselves allocated season tickets at their new home alongside those who wanted to sit. West Bromwich Albion, too, announced they were keen to introduce a standing section at the Hawthorns. Shrewsbury, Southend and Plymouth all announced they were seeking to offer similar provision to Celtic.
However, there was a major block to any adoption of the concept south of the border. At Liverpool, club and fans had long been reticent about engaging in the debate about safe standing. And no wonder: 96 of their number had died in the horror of a terrace crush at Hillsborough.
“Whenever asked our view on the issue, we always said our first priority was seeking truth and justice for those who had lost loved ones in the disaster,” said Jay McKenna of the Spirit of Shankly, the largest Liverpool supporters group. “We just felt it would have been a distraction.”
Although, in the attempt to improve the atmosphere at Anfield, a group called Reclaim The Kop had persuaded the club in 2008 unofficially to tolerate a standing section in Block 306 in the all-seated Kop, few felt it appropriate to support any wider campaign.
But things changed in April 2016 after the belated Hillsborough inquest reached its conclusion. ‘‘We had the verdict and we had the criminal proceedings, so we felt we had reached a place where we could include the families and survivors in the debate,” added McKenna. “What we didn’t want to happen was for the conversation to carry on around us with us not included.”
SoS organised a meeting last weekend with Hillsborough families to test their feeling about the idea of conducting a vote on the issue among Liverpool supporters. While some expressed considerable reservations about the idea of safe standing, the two bodies representing the families gave their consent. So, this week, SoS conducted an online poll which asked Liverpool fans for their view of the idea in theory; there was no mention of introducing safe-standing areas to Anfield. Tomorrow, the results will be made public. And it is expected, of several thousand votes, the overwhelming majority will be in favour.
Many of those involved in the campaign believe Liverpool’s backing (the club’s position is they will support whatever line the fans take) will be the deciding factor in bringing about the introduction of safe standing to the English game. Largely because, they insist, there would be no need to change the law. Legislation brought in after the Taylor Report only requires clubs to provide seats for every spectator; it does not oblige spectators to sit in them. The point about the rail seat system is it fits the legislation because every fan would be provided with a seat (albeit that it is pinned back). The point is, such a system enables fans to stand much more safely than they already do in conventional seated areas.
Even if, as yet, the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport does not recognise rail seating as seating, it means any change would be a matter of persuasion rather than law. And with the Premier League currently consulting its member clubs on the issue, if Liverpool’s support is forthcoming, that consensus could imminently be overwhelming. As the Tottenham test implied, safe standing may well soon be with us. Or, as one Hillsborough survivor speaking at last weekend’s meeting put it: “Everyone stands anyway, this would just be safer standing.”
The way they were: Liverpool fans on the Kop for the last time during the 1994 season; the rail seats (right) at Celtic Park