Standing order

09.08.2007

By Steve Menary
Back in the 1980s, after years of dealing with the problems of hooliganism, the majority of the UK’s top flight soccer venues had high fences installed and took on other security measures to contain fans in the event of fights breaking out. However, on April 15 1989, Liverpool had been due to play Nottingham Forest in the semi-final of the FA Cup at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough Stadium but that match was never to go ahead, as English football faced one of its darkest days: with the measures having been implemented to eradicate hooliganism having been the main contributor to the deaths of 96 football fans and injuries to a further 766.

First published in the Summer 2007 (Volume 13, no.4) issue of Panstadia magazine

Back in the 1980s, after years of dealing with the problems of hooliganism, the majority of the UK’s top flight soccer venues had high fences installed and took on other security measures to contain fans in the event of fights breaking out. However, on April 15 1989, Liverpool had been due to play Nottingham Forest in the semi-final of the FA Cup at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough Stadium but that match was never to go ahead, as English football faced one of its darkest days: with the measures having been implemented to eradicate hooliganism having been the main contributor to the deaths of 96 football fans and injuries to a further 766.

After that terrible day, a wide-ranging report on the UK’s football stadia was carried out by Lord Justice Taylor. One of the key recommendations of the report was to literally change the face of the UK’s soccer stadia industry, that being the insistence that all top flight grounds be all-seated. Now, some seventeen years after that disaster, calls are growing for a return to some form of standing at soccer games, with the campaign having even reached the House of Commons.

An Early Day Motion (EDM) is a mechanism in the House of Commons that allows members of parliament to propose a subject they feel deserves political debate. EDM’s rarely reach the floor of the House but four have been propositioned on the subject of a return to standing: the latest by Mike Hancock, Liberal Democrat MP for Portsmouth South, earlier this year.

In his EDM, Mr Hancock said: “That this House urges the Government to re-examine the case for introducing small, limited sections of safe standing areas at football grounds; further urges the Government to recognise that there is widespread support for such areas, and that improvements in stadium design and technology mean that, with rigorous safety specifications, standing areas could be safely re-introduced; and calls on the Minister concerned to convene a meeting of representatives of the police, supporters, Premier League clubs and [government licensing body] the Football Licensing Authority (FLA) to find a way forward.”

Around 150 MP’s, from a wide range of political backgrounds, have signed up to support the idea, ranging from Conservative MP Anne Widdecombe, to former film star turned Labour MP for Hampstead & Highgate, Glenda Jackson stalwart Anne Cryer. The EDM has even drawn support from either side of the political divide in Northern Ireland, with SDLP and DUP members in favour.

Regarding his reasons for laying down the EDM, Mr Hancock advised: “Firstly, I myself would prefer to stand at football matches - I am a regular at FrattonPark. Secondly, I am also aware of a large section of other regular supporters, of all clubs, who feel the same way.

“I see no reason whatsoever why sections of grounds, under proper supervision, could not be set aside for standing supporters. This would also relieve the tension between supporters and stewards when constant efforts have to be made to get people to sit down. It would also make life better for those supporters who wish to be seated, whether through choice or disabilities etc, who often have their view obscured by those who insist on standing, and who become angry or intimidated in the process.”

At present, legislation insists that clubs in the top two divisions of the English league pyramid (i.e. the Premier League and Coca Cola Championship) must have all-seated grounds and any club promoted to this level has three years to comply with these regulations.

The Football Licensing Authority (FLA) completed a wide-ranging report on the possibility of a return to standing at soccer grounds in 2001, at the behest of then Sports Minister Kate Hoey. An FLA team duly visited Germany, where many of the largest stadia had terracing or flexible seating areas that could be converted to standing. (Germany is currently the only major footballing nation in Europe to allow standing at its grounds.)

At the time of the team’s visit, many venues were being refurbished or new ones being built to host the 2006 FIFA World Cup but standing was still accommodated at grounds such as the Commerz-Bank Arena in Frankfurt. Built in 1925 and originally known as the Waldstadion, the ground was refurbished between 2002 and 2005, and now holds 52,300 fans with standing room for 9,300. Similarly, Borussia Dortmund’s SignalIdunaPark, formerly known as the Westfalenstadion, holds 82,000 fans for club matches and 67,000 for Internationals. The reason for the discrepancy is that International games must be all-seated affairs, whereas Dortmund’s matches in the Bundesliga are played out in front of a terrace of 25,000 standing fans - the biggest terrace in Europe.

In addition, Schalke 04’s 62,000-capacity Veltins Arena, which was built for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, opened back in 2001 with standing for 17,000 fans – and, according to club representatives, in the first six years of operation they did not experience a single accident or safety issue on the terrace.

“[Veltins Arena is] simply the best ground I’ve ever been in,” says Steven Powell, head of development for the Football Supporters Federation (FSF). “I’ve watched football on five continents at all levels, from the Nou Camp to the Bernabeu, from SoccerCity in Soweto to Aussie Stadium in Australia, from San Siro to Wembley, from the Maracana in Rio to the Bonbonera, from the Monumental in Buenos Aires to the Centenario in Montevideo, from HomeDepotCenter to Giants Stadium in the US.

“[At Veltins Arena] standing costs €9 (£6.12), with 10,000 seats at €15 (£10.20): the most expensive seat being €52 (£35.36). Kids can stand for €5 (£3.40). From a roll-out pitch, to retractable roof, it’s got everything, aside from being a spectacular piece of modern architecture. It’s a real temple to the peoples’ game. The roll-out pitch means it has a perfect playing surface and the ground can be rented out for all sorts of lucrative non-football events. The roof means big concerts and other events can be held without fear of rain. The standing areas can be converted to seats in four hours for UEFA/FIFA matches with an all-seating requirement.”

The German example is fuelling two UK fan campaigns lobbying for a return to standing. The FSF runs one campaign and the other, started by West Ham fans but now encompassing many other fan groups, is the Stand Up Sit Down (SUSD) movement.

The FSF campaign emerged from the safe Standing Areas For Eastlands (SAFE) group that wanted some standing areas introduced to ManchesterCity’s new stadium at Eastlands, which was built for the Commonwealth Games staged in the city in 2002. SAFE was started by Phill Gatenby of the FSF and although it failed in its attempts to have standing introduced at the stadium, the FSF then picked up the baton and has steadily widened the campaign into a nationwide one.

Mr Gatenby explained: “The FSF calls for safe standing areas, such as those seen in German stadiums. SUSD calls for standing areas within seated stands to be given over to those fans wishing to stand, to separate them from the fans wanting to remain seated or those who are physically unable to stand.”

After its 2001 visit and report, the FLA decided that standing would not be feasible in the UK and, six years later despite the lobbying, that position remains.

To try to counter this argument, the FSF went on its own fact-finding mission to Germany and outlined their proposals at the House of Commons during a seminar organised by experienced stadia consultant and project manager, Drivers Jonas.

The FSF were enraged when the FLA and the Department of Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), both decided not to attend the seminar. With the FLA’s chief executive, John De Quidt, being quoted as saying the event was: “Designed to generate more heat than light...There is a difference between entering into a debate and participating in a circus.”

This drew a furious response from the FSF, with Steven Powell reportedly commenting: “How would Mr Quidt know what the style and content of the seminar would be without him being there. The government should also be ashamed that the DCMS refused to participate.

“We’re told that the German model won’t work in this country because too much land would be required. What on earth has that got to do with safety? The Sports Minister has also said that football now attracts more women and ethnic minority supporters because of all-seated areas. This argument assumes that fans are incapable of behaving when watching a game standing up rather than seated. It also assumes that the proponents of safe standing want to make it compulsory, not an option. We want fans to have a choice to sit or stand. We know from the seminar that at least one major Premier League club wants the option to consider standing areas at its ground. They should have that right.”

The results of the latest Football Fans Census show that more than 80 percent of fans feel that safe standing areas would enhance their matchday experience, illustrating the growing momentum behind the safe standing lobby. However, the FLA’s John De Quidt argues that the issue is not that simple: “You can’t just say that they do it in Germany so why can’t we have it here. The design of these German stadia and the engineering is different.

“[For example] at the Allianz Arena [in Munich] the main tier is in the ground but if you are jumping up and down in a cantilevered stand with a concourse underneath the pressure is so much greater. People forget that there are a huge number of technical issues to be taken into account. A high proportion of the new stadia [in the UK] have been built for seating and if you went back to standing, you would need to do a lot of work.”

Such work would all cost money and further State subsidies, on top of the millions ploughed into UK stadia after the Taylor Report, would surely be politically inconceivable.

Simon Inglis, a past feature-writer for PanStadia and author of the book “Football Grounds of Great Britain and Engineering Archie” about stadia engineer Archibald Leach, which was short-listed for the ‘2005 Sports Book of the Year’ award, is in favour of a return to standing but understands the FLA’s predicament: “I am in favour in principle but because I understand the technical issues I simply can’t see it happening in the UK. It would require legislation, and which government would give up time to achieve this whilst the Premier League is coining it in?

“Then there would be the question of clubs paying to convert existing seating areas. They could not hold more people than currently sit or the loadings would be too heavy. Exits, etc, would have to be modified. It’s no simple matter.”

The Football Association (FA) also supports the government’s view, as head of media, Andrin Cooper, advised: “There is a general consensus among the parties that manage or license/certify stadia that the introduction of all-seated stadia has helped to improve crowd management and crowd behaviour. It also gives supporters better facilities to enjoy their football. All matches played under UEFA or FIFA regulations at club or national team level have to be played in stadia with seated accommodation. So the global trend is towards all-seated stadia. I believe that [former Sports Minister] Richard Caborn has said that the government will not consider a return to standing areas in our top flight football grounds and this view is supported by the FA.”

Ultimately, a return to standing is a political issue, but with Mike Hancock’s EDM unlikely to make it to the House of Commons for debate, the government’s view looks likely to remain unchallenged. A spokesperson for the DCMS said: “It remains the government’s position that the grounds of the clubs in the top two divisions of football [in the UK] should be all-seated.”

The likes of the FSF and the SUSD campaign are unlikely to quietly back down however, suggesting that the issue of a return to safe standing could become a test for new Prime Minister Gordon Brown at the next general election.

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