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Safe standing deserves high quality debate

March 26, 2011

The Football Supporters’ Federation should be congratulated for their attempts to ignite a debate on the issue of standing at football matches. I support their campaign. The arguments for the introduction of safe standing have been well documented over recent days; it is safe, it works abroad, it would improve atmosphere and would give people a choice. While the debate has flowed, particularly since the Guardian led with the story on its sports pages on Tuesday, the level of debate in some quarters has been regrettably poor.

The campaign for safe standing has been described as wanting to “take football back to the bad old days”. The spectre of Hillsborough is summoned to hammer home the case for seating. Those of us who support safe standing must accept that had the lower tier of the Leppings Lane end been seated then the disaster would not have happened. But it would also have been prevented had standing accommodation been managed in the way that the FSF propose, and there are other factors which were to blame that day: incompetent policing and crowd control, perimieter fencing, a refusal to put the kick-off time back, and the herding of fans into pens. Football has, thankfully, moved on since that frightful day in 1989. Pens and perimeter fencing are no more and fans are not treated with the same contempt. If each fan were allocated a specific position behind a barrier, just as tickets correspond to individual seats, then overcrowding would not be an issue. Such an arrangement would also prevent ‘bunking in’, which some have claimed would increase. It is wrong to say that allowing supporters to stand would be the start of conditions regressing to the state they were in 25 years ago.

Giving fans the choice whether to sit or stand will drive families and ethnic minorities away from the game, it is insinuated. However nobody who supports safe standing wishes to see every single seat in a Premier League stadium ripped out. The FSF argue that 15 per cent of a stadium’s capacity would be an acceptable upper limit for the number of standing supporters. There would still be plenty of space to sit down for all who wanted to do so. As for ethnic minorities, there is no doubt that racism at football matches has diminished over the past 20 years. It is hard to see how allowing a section of the stadium to stand up would reverse that trend. Because individual places would be allocated to supporters, it would be as easy to single out those responsible for racist abuse as it is at the moment.

The word “terracing” has been used to liken safe standing to the open steps of old where only the odd token crush barrier was in place to prevent surges. This is a particularly unhelpeful choice of language as it conjures up images of bleak, urine-drenched steps, a part of the era before football was considered cool, a construction tainted with hooliganism and death. Those who have signed the FSF petition on safe standing have done so not because they wish to see a return to terracing, but because they wish to see clubs introduce areas for safe standing. There is a difference. Opponents of change should look to Germany to see what such an area looks like. With crash barriers every couple of steps there is no change of a crush, and because fans stand in front of seats (which are locked up for Bundesliga games but lowered for European and international fixtures) they can be given allocated positions, preventing overcrowding. It cheapens the debate to compare such stands with the terraces of old, where surges were commonplace, overcrowding was possible and safety was not a concern.

I am pleased that this debate is taking place. While it may seem futile in the face of probable rejection by government and football administrators, it is important to recognise that there are many supporters across the country who stand in front of their seats when they would rather stand behind a barrier. But while the debate should be welcomed and is a valuable one, the FSF and those of us who support their campaign have a duty to ensure that lazy arguments are challenged and that the real issues – the demand, the cost and the benefits of change – are dealt with.

Sign the FSF’s petition here.

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