Several days late, in the eyes of some, to the issue of football stadia.
Late, that is, if it is indeed the case that the twentieth anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy was the subject I should have been addressing a couple of days back, failure to do so having sparked something of a mini-riot on my Facebook page.
I was a journalist on the Sunday Mirror on the day of the disaster, that rare Saturday when newspapers had a real, enormous news story to cover. It was a horrible day. I was on the Daily paper at the time of other football stadia disasters, like Heysel, the Bradford City fire, the riots at Birmingham and elsewhere when football violence was rampant.
As far as I recall, it was a combination of these, and a general feeling that ‘something had to be done’ that led to the Taylor and Popplewell reports and, eventually, a general acceptance of all-seater stadia.
On the Hillsborough memorial events, I had considerable sympathy for Culture Secretary Andy Burnham, who found himself in something of a ‘damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t’ situation when he was heckled at Anfield. Given the enormity of the tragedy and the passions it continues to arouse, I think the government would have been criticised had there been no representative at the Anfield memorial itself. As the minister whose department has overall responsibility for sport, and as a Liverpudlian, albeit an Evertonian when it comes to football, he was the obvious person to be there.
He is also a very decent man who will have thought carefully about what to say, knowing that there would be some in the crowd for whom no words from anyone in authority will ever compensate for so many deaths.
This may not seem the right time to raise the issue of standing at football, but I for one hope that Andy Burnham is pressing for there to be something in the next Labour manifesto about it.
Thanks in part to the changes driven by some of the tragedies and incidents mentioned above, football grounds in Britain are far better than they were. Though there is no room for complacency, most police forces in most areas have hooliganism more or less under control.
The question is whether the progress has been sufficient for the debate at least to be opened about whether there can be a return to an acceptance of standing at football.
In many grounds, there already is. Look at most away ends in the Premiership, and you will see it has become the norm to stand. Some clubs continue to push very hard to implement the all-seater policy, and while that is the law, one can see why.
But the rare incidents of violence I have witnessed this year have tended not to be between rival supporters, but between fans and the stewards and police trying to make them sit.
I sit at home games, but prefer to stand at away games. Usually a general mood will develop around kick-off time so that sometimes we sit, sometimes we stand. People who do not follow football will wonder why on earth I am even bothering to write about it, but to many who do follow football, it is an issue. It is hard to explain why it matters, and I’m not pretending it matters as much as the economy, the environment, or public services, but it does matter to some, and it is worth the main parties having a ponder about it.
Provided a way can be found for those who want to sit to sit, and those who want to stand to stand, it ought to be one of those ‘everyone happy’ situations so rare in politics; and if it worked, another memorial in a way, testimony to lessons having been learned.