Posting this piece, which was published on The Guardian’s Comment Is Free this morning, as I watch both home and away ends at Stamford Bridge standing, without apparent risk or inconvenience.
— To any football fan who fancies an interesting, neutral weekend away, take a look at the Bundesliga fixtures, and take a trip to Germany. For all the global hype of the English Premier League, if it is atmosphere at prices you can afford you’re after, Germany is the place.
Two very important factors have helped make their league the best-attended in Europe, with fantastic atmospheres at big matches: lower ticket prices is one; safe standing is the other. And it is time to take another look at making it happen here too.
Before the last election, I tried to get Labour to put safe standing into our manifesto. Some were keen, some were indifferent considering all the other priorities facing the country, and some were vehemently opposed.
This latter group included Andy Burnham, the sports minister at the time, which made it a non-starter. I do understand his reluctance. Burnham, an Evertonian, is from Merseyside and he has worked tirelessly on behalf of the families of those who lost their lives at Hillsborough. His was an understandable position.
However, now that a sense of justice for the 96 has finally begun to prevail, even with safety always paramount, it is possible to say the debate has shifted and can shift further.
Because the Hillsborough tragedy, which I wrote about for the Mirror Group as a journalist, was caused by fatal policing errors, flawed stadium design and fences. Standing wasn’t to blame. Standing can be done safely. And standing would make a difference for the better to football in Britain today.
I read recently that half the Football League has standing areas already or backs the Football Supporters’ Federation’s Safe Standing Campaign.
Some of the Premier League clubs get it and Aston Villa have been vocal supporters of the FSF’s Safe Standing Campaign along with Swansea City, Sunderland and the Scottish Premier League. West Ham United chairman David Gold has expressed his backing for safe standing too.
I’m pleased to say my club, Burnley, is heading in the right direction on safe standing, with chief executive Lee Hoos asking the government to permit a few small-scale trials to determine how it might work.
At our home game against Blackburn Rovers in December, the entire lower tiers of two home stands, and the whole of the away end, stood throughout the match. This happens week in, week out at many grounds across the UK and it’s about time leaders in the football industry pulled their heads out of the sand.
Yet the Premier League still won’t support safe standing and says: “Since the introduction of all-seater stadia … we have seen more diverse crowds attending Premier League matches including more women and children.”
Of course more diverse crowds are a very good thing – football shouldn’t just be a game for middle-aged white blokes. It’s a legitimate concern but I am not convinced by the Premier League’s belief that women and children would be scared off by standing areas.
The FSF’s 2012 survey was filled in by 4,000 fans, and one in every three female fans who completed it said they preferred to stand. Another third said they might do, depending on the game. And 85% of female respondents said they backed the choice to sit or stand.
In fact the underlying assumption that female fans will somehow be scared off by those boisterous boys in the standing corner is a bit patronising anyway. Plenty of women choose to stand too.
Sports minister Hugh Robertson argues that any change in legislation would require there to be “a very clear demand” from clubs and fans. I think the backing from fans is clear, both those who want to stand and those who want to sit. Both want a better atmosphere. Plenty of clubs make the right noises too, but they do not have the power.
Robertson and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport also say that there needs to be “very clear evidence that any such change meets stringent safety standards”. I don’t think anyone could possibly disagree with that. But how can clubs present “very clear evidence” if the government won’t permit a trial?
And of course there is plenty of “very clear evidence” in League One and League Two grounds every week. I have never quite got how standing is provenly safe for a League One club, but if they get promoted to the Championship, suddenly it is unsafe. Added to which, I couldn’t help noticing two ends standing when Peterborough played Burnley this year. Surely something is either safe or it isn’t.
Aston Villa say they would love to trial rail seated safe standing areas, and West Midlands police’s matchday commander agrees. Fans at the club want it too, but everyone’s hands are tied until the government gives the nod.
And remember: it is a coalition government. And one part of it, the Lib Dems, made safe standing official party policy in 2008. It is time they remembered that, and did something to bring it about.
Regardless of whether there’s political capital to be made out of the issue – and there might be some – it’s just the right thing to do. Every week, thousands of fans stand in seated areas that just weren’t designed for it. It’s not right and it’s not fair on those who would prefer to sit either.
Let’s be sensible about this and give fans and clubs the trials that so many of them clearly want.