Liver­pool fans set to back safe stand­ing

Views of An­field reg­u­lars could de­cide whether the Premier League changes pol­icy, writes Jim White

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - By 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

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