Standing at football: And Another Thing

From the April 2006 issue of FourFourTwo...

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Our panel, left to right:
John Harrison, cruise liner barman, Liverpool
Ian Baker, journalism student, Wycombe Wanderers
Steve Stuart, temp agency co-ordinator, Walsall
Tom Balay, trainee retail manager, Stoke City

What do you prefer about standing?

Walsall One of the advantages of standing was that if you were ever stuck between a Clayhead and a Scouser, you could move!
Stoke I much preferred standing, and I’m not alone at Stoke. Attendances have dropped since we moved from the Victoria Ground to the Britannia Stadium, and that’s because the older generation want to stand up rather than sit. People don’t get involved as much any more because they can’t move around and sing as freely, confined to their seats. You’ve got stewards telling you to sit down. The atmosphere’s lost.
Wycombe I’m on the board of the Wycombe Wanderers Supporters’ Trust, and we’re campaigning to maintain our terrace at the club and talk about the positives of standing – particularly safe standing. At Wycombe there used to be three terraces, but they rather hastily got rid of two of them, and we’re left with just the traditional home end, which is now under threat because of our groundshare with Wasps, who need an all-seater stadium and an increased capacity. But the football fans want the luxury of standing: they want to be able to move about; they want to talk to their friends; they want to engage in a good atmosphere which has been lost by all-seater stadiums; they want to be on their feet supporting their team.
Walsall The difference was that people always used to congregate together to sing and create an atmosphere, but they’re all dispersed by having to book tickets for an all-seater stadium – although over time, the singers can sometimes come back together.
Liverpool We have sections, like the top right part of the Kop, where most of the songs come from. When the Kop became all-seater, you could request blocks of tickets all together. My dad, for instance, sits in a block of 15 people who he used to stand with on the Kop. And every Christmas they get together and go away and have their do!
Walsall We’ve lost our last bit of terracing. It’s all-seater now, but we do still stand. We’re on the back row, away from anyone else. Occasionally, people try to stand in the seats down in front of us, and they get into bother. I know, with a Liverpool fan here, and bearing in mind the history of Hillsborough, the main advantage of all-seating is the fact that it regulates where everyone goes – if you used to have a 10,000 terrace, 7,000 would stand in the middle and 1,500 at the sides – but unfortunately that dissipates the passion and the energy.

What do you prefer about all-seater stadia?

Liverpool Obviously, safety’s the first reason for sitting down. It might be different in the lower leagues, but when you’ve got up to 60,000 people in some Premiership grounds, you simply can’t have them all standing, because of what’s happened in the past. You can’t let those things happen again.
Walsall Is that the case, though? If you regulated how many were in a particular area…
Liverpool But all it takes is one mistake. For one life to be lost at a football game is one too many. I know what you’re saying, that you could cordon it off and say you could have 500 people stood in that section, another 500 in that section – but then you’ve got to really enforce barriers and where people are going, and that can lead to more problems.
Walsall With a crowd of 500 in a particular section, you’re not going to get those problems. I know it’s such a big part of the history of Liverpool Football Club, but there are possible options in the future. I remember when we played you in the 1984 Milk Cup semi-finals, and the wall came down: it was the sheer weight of numbers that were in the Liverpool end. We all thought you were coming into our end for a fight, moved to get away, and there was a crush. My dad worked at the hospital and he said most of the injuries that night came at the Walsall end, because the wall at our end didn’t collapse. The fact is, if that had happened three years later, when we’d got barriers up to keep the away fans in place, Hillsborough had the potential to happen at a ground that only held 20,000.
Liverpool It could have happened when Liverpool were at Hillsborough in the semi-final against Forest the year before, but it was far better organised that year. My dad was at Hillsborough with my uncle in 1989, and everyone who was there has suffered serious mental scars. That’s why I’m involved with the Hillsborough Family Support Group, campaigning to see justice done for those innocent 96 people, as well as the bereaved and the survivors. We’d just like to see those responsible held accountable. That’s why I’ve got ‘Justice’ tattooed across the base of my back.
Walsall That’s why standing will never come back, because no government will ever vote to reintroduce something that could go so wrong.
Liverpool You can say standing’s gone from the game, it’s banned; but so is tackling from behind. It still happens at every ground, I’m sure, when you score; when you’re singing. At Anfield it happens at pretty much every European night now.
Stoke There’ll never be standing areas at high-capacity grounds, but it’s a different case for the lower leagues, although the potential for danger is still there. For example, when Stoke play Tamworth and fill their capacity on the terracing, and in Cup matches. It’s just that the risk isn’t there every week.
Wycombe Our campaign was initially aimed just at keeping our own terraces, but we worked in accordance with the Stand Up Sit Down campaign, and other people got involved. Personally, I’d love to see terraces back at all grounds in English football. I think it’s perfectly manageable, if controlled. You see it happen in Germany, and there are no problems there.

What’s the compromise between the pro-standing and all-seater positions?

Liverpool Don’t forget you can still have everybody standing on the Kop, but I can’t envisage ever going back to terracing, because it is dangerous, no matter how you control it. You can actually have controlled standing: we stood the whole game in Istanbul. Every European night at Anfield, everybody stands both at the Kop and the Anfield Road end, and it’s a fantastic atmosphere. We have flag days at Anfield, a couple of games a season, where everyone brings all their flags; and we could maybe have something similar with designated standing games in those areas, big games like the derby, Man USA and cup games. Standing doesn’t have to disappear completely from grounds.
Wycombe I think standing in seated areas is very dangerous – with no leg-room in any case. When a goal’s scored, your shins are up against the seat in front. What’s the point of the seat if you’re not sitting in it?
Liverpool Say United score and Gary Neville runs across to the section of Liverpool fans and you’re in an all-standing area, then when the people behind you come surging forward, there’s nothing to stop one person falling over, and you’ve got another tragedy on your hands. Whereas if you’re stood by your seat, it’s not going to happen.
Wycombe If there are barriers every four or five rows, you’re not going to get the whole terrace coming down behind you.
Stoke I think standing with seats is much safer, it’s just that it isn’t generally allowed.  You’re usually ejected for standing up, aren’t you? And clubs have had their ticket allocations cut because their fans stand at away games.
Liverpool Every away game that you go to at Liverpool, you stand all the way through. I sit in the Main Stand at Anfield and every week I hear “Liverpool Football Club requests the away fans to sit down”, and it doesn’t make any difference. That’s what makes the atmosphere.
Stoke If 5,000 away fans at Old Trafford want to stand up, how are 30 stewards going to stop them? It’s the hardcore fans who travel away, and they generally want to stand up.
Walsall There’s always a difference between home and away fans’ stewarding, that’s for sure.
Wycombe It doesn’t always work well when people are standing in seated areas, because surely some fans will be there because they want to sit down. I’d say people should just be given the choice between sitting and standing, albeit at your own risk, on the understanding that the terraced area is going to be properly managed. That’s the case at any size ground.
Walsall It might be safer in some respects to have seats, whether you’re using them or not, but it’s a lot quicker to evacuate a standing area than a seated enclosure. Let’s not forget Bradford as well as Hillsborough, because there’s more than one way for tragedy to strike.
Liverpool But it’s not like-for-like, is it? There used to be three entrances to the Kop when it was a terrace, now there are a dozen or maybe 14. And it holds 14,000 rather than 26,000.

Were things really better in the past when you could stand at any ground, or it just a case of rose-tinted nostalgia?

Wycombe When I was little I was in the side terrace, wanting desperately to go up the ranks, so to speak, to go behind the goal where the main hardcore stood. When you get to 13 and your dad allows you to go in the main section with all the singing and swearing, and where the main bundles occur… that terrace culture. That really enjoyable culture that you saw and want to be part of: you don’t get that any more. It’s gone.
Liverpool There did used to be more trouble in grounds, the sort of trouble that’s now displaced to pub closing time on a Saturday night. As Ian says, people used to aspire to go behind the goal and have a punch-up. It’s lifestyle changes as well as demographics, because, okay, people have been displaced by the prawn sandwich brigade. It hasn’t helped the atmosphere, but it’s better for safety.
Stoke I’m not sure if it’s just how Stoke’s history has turned out, ‘cos we were more of a success when standing was the norm, but I can remember the times when I’ve stood when we were in Division One – the old Second Division – and it was a completely different atmosphere, so much better. It’s been the same at a lot of the away grounds I’ve been to with terracing, win or lose. I’ve been going since I was four!
Liverpool The seat I have now was my nan’s uncle’s, then it was my grandad’s, and now it’s mine. I can remember going in the Kop and it being so loud and so packed and so big, sitting on them bars with my dad holding on to me – like I was sitting on the crossbar or something! As far as I’m concerned it still is the Kop: it took over when the old Kop had to be retired, and it’s unique, the biggest seated one-tier stand in Britain. It’s a bit of a scary thought that we might have to go to a new ground one day, and leave Anfield, which is a really special place.

Given the experience of so many fans at so many new stadiums, what are your expectations for New Wembley, Stanley Park, Ashburton Grove…?

Liverpool The perfect example is Highbury, where you have to walk under people’s houses on stilts to get into parts of the ground. It’s got so much character about it, rather than this great big amazing stadium that looks like it’s just landed from Mars. I hope the new Wembley’s the best stadium in the world, because we’re England, and if we’re going to have a new stadium it’s got a lot to live up to. It’s the same with Anfield – we’ve got to get it right because there’s a lot to lose.
Walsall We were one of the first clubs to move to a new stadium, just after Hillsborough. I’ve been to probably three times as many games at the Bescot, but Fellows Park still feels like home – even though there’s nothing there now.
Stoke Every Stoke fan I know would do absolutely anything to go back to the Victoria Ground: when you move to another ground, it’s like you’re away. The character and the atmosphere are lost. Grounds like Pride Park and Coventry’s new ground, they’re all built in derelict land in the middle of nowhere; but the pre-match, how the fans enter the ground, and the frame of mind when they get in: that all reflects on the team, because obviously the crowd is the 12th man for any team.
Wycombe I went the Ricoh Arena earlier this season: it’s eight miles from the train station. There’s no train link, there’s no bus link, so you have to get a taxi – and then the parking’s terrible as well. It’s ridiculous. Inside the ground I saw about 10 people standing up, wanting to support their team, and getting ejected – and this was Coventry City against Plymouth Argyle! It was a huge overreaction to the tiny potential problem, and you see it week in, week out. I don’t think you need anywhere near as many police at football matches, especially if stewards are better trained.
Liverpool We have our own police officers and stewards who travel with us, and they actually do care. It makes you feel a bit more confident.

Did the Taylor Report produce knee-jerk responses?

Wycombe The aim was obviously to prevent another tragedy, and it’s probably done that; but the knock-on effects have been a disaster for the game. Meanwhile, Lord Justice Taylor was actually quoted as saying that “standing accommodation is not intrinsically unsafe”. It’s on the Stand Up Sit Down website.
Liverpool Don’t forget he’s a judge, and it’s all very forensic, what he was saying. But the fact of the matter is, once you get people, as soon as you get any other imponderables and things happening on the spur of the moment, terracing is inherently unsafe.
Stoke You can’t put anything before a person’s life. Everything else comes second.
Walsall It’s individual situations that people aren’t prepared for – which we’ve all seen at football grounds – that present the danger to fans. To be honest, if I’d been the inspector in charge outside Hillsborough, and I’d been told people would die unless I opened the gates, I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same.
Liverpool But would you then have turned around to the press and said it was the Liverpool fans who kicked the gates in?

Interviews: April 2006.