“We could stand without the Scousers.” That grim, derogatory joke about the Hillsborough disaster has played at too many Premier League games in Liverpool over the years. In January it will be superfluous. For the first time in more than a quarter of a century, fans in the top division can legally stay on their feet.
It is perhaps appropriate that Chelsea’s home game against Liverpool on January 2nd is the first game in a pilot that introduces safe standing and monitors for the second half of the season. Stamford Bridge has been the site of some of the worst Hillsborough behavior. Manchester United, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur join Chelsea in the championship alongside Cardiff City. If the experiment is successful, there will be a broader introduction of standing room in the top two leagues, where no-seat areas have been banned since 1994 (barring grace periods for clubs moving up to the second division to rebuild their stadiums).
The trigger for the move to stadiums with only seats was the rush to Leppings Lane 32 years ago, in which 97 Liverpool supporters were killed in the semi-finals of the FA Cup against Nottingham Forest. The disaster remains one of the most misunderstood incidents in modern British history – to the point where Ian Byrne, MP for the Merseyside constituency of West Derby, put an early motion to Parliament on Monday proposing that Hillsborough be included in the National curriculum to be added to raise awareness. There is similar ignorance about the reintroduction of standing.
Just this week, an Arsenal fan blog asked, “Why go back to a formula that has failed?” in which 33 people died in a crush in 1946 is symptomatic of an argument based on a number of misunderstandings.
“The worst-kept secret in football is standing room every week,” said Pete Dakin, the Football Supporters’ Association’s Safe Standing Campaign coordinator. “In every stadium there are parts where the fans are on their feet for most of the 90 minutes.”
Especially away goals are hard to keep. This creates problems for law enforcement and police trying to enforce the law or handling complaints from people who want to remain seated but find their view blocked.
“The system is fundamentally broken,” said Dakin. “Common sense has finally caught on.”
The redesign of the stadiums to get rid of the terracing came as part of Lord Justice Taylor’s investigation at Hillsborough. While the report concluded that “standing accommodation is not inherently unsafe”, the recommendation in favor of seating-only venues undermined that assessment.
Rick Parry was the first Premier League chairman in 1992 and is now chairman of the EFL. He remembers the mood back then. “I was surprised that no one had evidence that standing was unsafe,” he said. “There were minor arguments about estimating the capacity of decks, but the police failure that Hillsborough caused could have happened with seats. But nobody wanted to argue with Taylor. “
Richie Greaves, who was on Pen 3 on Leppings Lane and is now Secretary of the Hillsborough Survivors Support Association, agrees. “At first I was in favor of getting rid of standing,” he said. “It was an emotional thing. But it quickly became clear that standing wasn’t dangerous per se. I am wholeheartedly in favor of the introduction of safe standing. “
The fears of the opponents of the five-club experiment are justified but unfounded. They worry about overcrowding and unpredictable surges. The Arsenal blog even goes so far as to say, “If someone scratches his knee while standing, that’s one too many. When a person is injured, football has let that person down. If the worst should happen, there would be blood on their hands anyone who just urged it for more sales and / or wanted a better atmosphere … I can’t think of a single reason that justifies changing something that has been proven to be safer go to football. “
Greaves can. His 1989 experience qualifies him to assess the situation better than most, rejecting any notion that the imminent changes pose a threat to viewers. Injuries have become a regular by-product of standing in sitting areas. “People stand on the head every week,” he said. “It’s pretty dangerous when you score a massive goal. Corpses fly everywhere.
“I have deep scars on both shins from the seats in front of me. You may end up falling on your back. It just takes a little slip. A safe stand will put an end to all of this. “
To avoid such chaos, rail seats are to be installed in the five participating clubs. Behind and in front of each individual there is a barrier that blocks downward pressure from behind. It’s almost impossible to fall into the front row.
Overcrowding is also not an issue. Each person occupies the same area that they would occupy if they were seated. Contrary to popular belief, clubs cannot use the new configuration to cram more body into the ground. The capacity is not affected and each supporter has a dedicated space and a traceable, numbered ticket. A return to the surging, swaying mass movement of the 1980s, in which individuals could move around on the terraces as they pleased, is not possible.
“The sports field safety agency has been excellent,” said Dakin. “It was a smooth, evidence-based, data-driven campaign that took into account standing experience around the world.
“The only stadium that is completely safe is an empty stadium, but there is a certain range of risks. The introduced system is at the safest end of this spectrum. “
Anyone who hopes that standing will lead to a reduction in ticket prices will be disappointed. In fact, fans pay to occupy the same seat and the seat remains unlocked so it can be used before the game and at halftime. This is not a cheap option.
“It’s interesting where we go from here,” said Dakin. “The Original Law” [in the 1990s] was really bad and resulted in anomalies. ”Clubs outside the top two were allowed to continue terracing, mainly because the cost of the changes would have put some smaller teams out of business. The new developments raise questions for the future. “The law needs to be changed,” said Dakin. “For example, what would happen if Peterborough United made it to the Premier League? Sooner or later a team with you [old-style] Terraces will rise through the partitions. The clubs need to sit down with experts and discuss what suits their soil. Safety has to come first. “
Dakin is clear on one thing. “Hillsborough legacy is not about seating-only stadiums,” he said. “Legacy of Disaster is a more inclusive game with safer and more fun football for an increasingly diverse audience.”
The introduction of safe standing underlines this point. There should be one less sneering song in the Hillsborough songbook.