Many thanks to The Observer for asking me to debate my pro-safe standing at football stance with Danny Kelly, who says he is opposed, but as you will see, he is actually pretty close to me, and will be a safe stander before too long.

If you want to post comments, go to the Observer link. I am having troubles with Disqus again ….oh, ok, I have forgotten the password again and am too embarrassed to ask the techie guy again!! The comments at the Observer so far suggest I am winning about 4-1 so far (which is, if memory serves me right, the score by which we beat Spurs in the League Cup pre Taylor report, when Burnley were in the old third division and Spurs were in the old first division, and Graham Roberts scored two great own goals. Happy days!

Alastair Campbell With Bristol City the latest club to try a safe standing experiment, and Manchester United shifting on the issue as a result of fan pressure, the momentum is definitely moving and thank heavens for that. Especially at away games, I much prefer standing. Atmosphere is a massive part of football, which is why TV is never enough. Fans who stand tend to make more noise, get into the game more. The government line is that this can only happen if there is demand for the change. Every poll shows there is support for standing and tens of thousands of people make the demand clear every week by standing in front of their upturned seats, with none of the appalling consequences predicted by the forces of conservatism. The only difficulty comes from overzealous stewards having to police a ludicrous rule. And please don’t say this will risk another Hillsborough. Hillsborough was about ticketing, policing, stewarding, and bad management of crowd and capacity.

Danny Kelly Hillsborough was, as you say, about a failure of several systems, all of which football fans deserve to have working correctly and to their advantage. In fairness, though, it should be pointed out that Hillsborough would not – could not – have unfolded as it did in a modern, all-seater stadium. And it is worth noting that the campaign for safe standing, whose widespread support I freely acknowledge, is not backed by the Hillsborough families.

That said, I find myself in a weird place with all this. I’m habitually supportive of fan-led football initiatives, and I’ll arm wrestle anyone who labels me a force of conservatism, but I find myself nonetheless reluctant to go down the safe standing route. My reticence is more based in emotion than reason. I understand the case for safe standing, and appreciate the thought that has gone into it. I’ve even safe stood (and sat!) at Dortmund’s ground, which has the exact arrangements being proposed, to get a feel of what it’s like. But Dortmund is Germany, and Germany didn’t go through what English football went through in the 70s and 80s.

I don’t think safe standing threatens to undermine any of the improvements football has seen in the past 20 years, yet something inside of me is nagging away. All-seater stadiums, for all their faults, have at the very least coincided with a safer, more tolerant, more inclusive football experience. Why mess with that? I think the energy, dedication and brainpower currently being expended on safe standing would be better directed at other sorely needed campaigns. Cheaper seats, better facilities and supporter involvement at board level, to name but three.

AC Danny, Hillsborough would not and could not unfold at Dortmund because there is one numbered ticket for every fan. Of course due respect should be given to the Hillsborough families. But I have seen Burnley at Liverpool and at Notts Forest, the two teams involved that day, and whether on the Kop at Anfield or the bit to the left of the away end at Forest and the tier to the right above it, Liverpool and Forest fans stand in their thousands. Also, if you want to give the fan more of a say in this overcorporatised game, with too many clubs now owned by people whose primary interests are money, ego, status or influence, this is a good place to start.

German football is so far ahead of us on and off the field and the standing culture is part of a broader culture that gets the game closer to people who genuinely support it. It is not a question of messing with something that works but improving something that could be better. There is still some violence in Germany. But the improved policing, CCTV and intelligence inside and outside the grounds, alongside broader cultural changes, have made it safer and this is an idea whose time has come. Also, did you know that in Leagues One and Two, from 2008-2010, more arrests were made at all-seater stadiums than at grounds with terraces?

DK OK, now we’re getting somewhere. The kind of safe standing being proposed is that which we’ve observed in Germany. And that country also provides shining examples of the kind of organisation (51% fan ownership, carefully controlled and overseen economic activity), levels of pricing, and club/supporter relations that, I suspect, we’d both like to see. They also, critically, provided both last year’s Champions League finalists without selling the family jewels to the highest bidder. So let’s try to be a bit more ambitious. If safe standing is an attractive part of the overall German model, fine. But let’s not just cherry-pick that. Why not try to push for those much wider reforms that might take us toward the more attractive model we can see just a few hundred miles to our east. The oligarchs, industrialists and royal families will resist it with all their might; but, as someone a bit smarter than me once said, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

I think I know why people want safe standing. Many yearn for the wonderful, communal, almost religious to and fro of the old terraces. Part of me does too. But those days are gone, and besides, we both know that the new experience is nothing like that. Equally, I know that proponents believe the standing areas will be cheaper, just as they are in, you guessed it, Germany. But, again, this is England. The people who run football will not, it seems, be satisfied, until they have wrung every last penny from our pockets. I wouldn’t be surprised if they charged the new standers extra for the privilege of having their safety ensured by a small metal railing!

AC So now you are quoting Chinese philosophers at me. Because Lao Tzu wrote in ancient Chinese there have been different interpretations of his “thousand miles” quote but one of them is “even the longest journey must begin where you stand”. Brilliant. It can be our campaign slogan as we fight together for fan power. We have to start somewhere and this is the place. Once fans show that they are capable of winning arguments in pursuit of a broader strategy to change the game, other changes will come. The shifts in Germany didn’t happen by accident. They happened because people made them happen. The Premier League is a great global brand but part of its value is that usually games are played out in front of packed stadium. There will come a point where the money men and oligarchs realise that there will be a backlash against pricing people out or treating them purely as paying extras in a TV spectacle. This is not just about standing. It is about fans standing up for themselves. When newly promoted Burnley play at White Hart Lane next year, let’s get the whole stadium joining together to sing “stand up for the standing up”. (Repeat four times.)

DK I think we largely agree. My opposition to standing is based on memories of the past. Of glorious, abandoned surges among throngs of the like-minded. And of being forced upwards, like a cork on a wave, at West Ham, my feet off the ground for what seemed like hours, scared witless. If you promise that safe standing will see both those things confined to the dustbin of memory, I’ll happily go along. I guess that’s what the experiment at Bristol City, and beyond, is all about. As for next season, you’d be very welcome at the Lane. We’ll meet outside the east stand. I’ll stand you a soft drink. Then we’ll go to the stand. Where we sit. And, when things get exciting, stand. Understand?


Alastair Campbell’s book My Name Is… was last week nominated in the political novel of the year awards