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Safe Standing: The Debate

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Safe Standing. The topic that will dominate English football for the next few years- clubs and fans alike are pressing ahead with it's consideration. Here we have The Tilehurst End regulars and long-term Reading supporters debating for and against the case of safe standing. Arguing for its introduction is Jon Keen, a prominent member of STAR and the Football Supporters Federation; in the other corner Assistant Editor at TTE Marc Mayo.

Rail Seating aka 'Safe Standing' at Wolfsburg
Rail Seating aka 'Safe Standing' at Wolfsburg
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Jon Keen (@urzz1871):
The time has come for safe standing in English football, to cater for a demand to stand at matches which has never gone away. Surveys consistently show that around 30%-40% of supporters, prefer to stand at matches, with over 80% of supporters supporting safe, custom-designed standing areas.

At last, clubs are recognising the demand from their supporters, but government legislation prevents them from providing the facilities their customers so clearly want. Clubs such as Aston Villa and Bristol City are legally prevented from responding to customer demand – what industry other than football would suffer such a ludicrous situation?

In 1990 Lord Justice Taylor predicted that supporters would soon get used to watching football sitting down, but clearly this hasn’t happened. After twenty-four years of efforts (including supporter bans, reduced away allocations and threats to close stands) ground authorities know that the regulations are both impractical and unenforceable, and many now take a more pragmatic approach. Because being forced to enforce the unenforceable causes significant conflict between supporters and stewards, and also tension amongst supporters where the "sitters" and "standers" clash.

The current mish-mash of regulations forbids "persistent standing" not "standing" itself, and Lord Taylor stated that it‘s inevitable that supporters will stand at "moments of excitement." But at such a "moment of excitement" someone standing blocks the view of the person behind them. That person might prefer to sit, or may be unable to stand – unsighted at the moment of most interest!

But all this conflict is unnecessary. Separate areas in a ground where those who want to stand and those who want to sit can do so without either getting in each other’s way is surely a non-brainer? That’s the sort of choice that safe standing is all about, and now the time is right for it.

Marc Mayo (@ThatMarcMayo):

The safe standing debate has come about a generation after the Lord Taylor investigation that prompted the modernising of English football, which has produced a sport which does (or is beginning to) welcome all fans of all ages from across the globe. This debate is worth having, of course, any discussion on improving our sport is worth having- but I see safe standing as a backwards step.

The ‘demand’ of standing in top-level football grounds originates from a vocal minority, those who focus more time and effort into the game than the regular fan. Good, we need those sorts of people, but such a rapid change of culture in English football threatens to make this argument dominated by those who don’t entirely represent the fans of the game these days.

For example, you simply cannot take families or youngsters into standing areas- no matter how ‘safe’. Spending crucial time and effort into jeopardising a valuable group that the game has fought so hard to gain the support of risks alienation. Furthermore, simply telling them to move to another part of the ground does not treat them with respect. Even so, where would you move them?

Let’s move this onto another big issue of Safe Standing.
The modern game has a real problem with ticket prices; campaigns such as the "20’s plenty" away ticket pricing encapsulate this and fight a good fight. A claim of the Safe Standing campaign is lower ticket prices, often quoting the Bundesliga where standing tickets are often under £10. Great value... Because a seat costs £40 at Dortmund and £35 at Wolfsburg, so hardly worth the cost if you don’t fancy being amongst the standers. In English football seats are already this high, and would go higher. As I said, this alienates a large group of fans who simply can’t, or choose not to, stand.

In relation to Safe Standing, the German game has recently become prophesised as the model forward. In reality this is because a fashionable Dortmund side and dominant Bayern side have emerged on-pitch, leaving many truths brushed under the rug.

Jon:

I was interested to hear what arguments Marc would come up, because I’m convinced there are no cogent arguments left against safe standing. And I don’t think he is actually arguing against safe standing in itself.

Marc’s four main points seem to be : only an out-of-touch minority want safe standing; it’s not for everyone; there are more important campaigns to fight; and not everything from Germany is as good as hyped. I’ll answer each one.

Certainly, those campaigning for safe standing are a vocal few – isn’t that how all campaigns start? But demand certainly is there. Every survey shows overwhelming support amongst supporters – even those who prefer to sit appreciate the clear sense in having people who want to stand in an area where that won’t get in anyone’s way. But even if Marc were right (he’s not!) - does it make sense that any club which wants to cater for customers who prefer to stand is prohibited by law?

The statement "you simply cannot take families or youngsters into standing areas" doesn’t hold water. Why can’t you? Demand statistics simply don’t support that assumption – for instance, in the last years of Ninian Park, Cardiff, 35% of season ticket holders in the Grange Road end standing areas were aged under 16 - and 45% were female. Anyway, no-one has ever said safe standing is for everyone, or should be compulsory -– we’re talking about 20-25% of a ground, not all of it.

And why can’t we campaign simultaneously for both safe standing AND lower prices? Especially as the potential 80% capacity increase from safe standing areas gives club owners economic arguments to introduce safe standing AND to reduce ticket prices. An owner selling 1,800 standing places at £15 instead of 1,000 seats at £25 each would still be better off. Whether they would, of course, is another question….

While I agree that not everything in German football is perfect, why reject the good bits? It’s an indication of the influence and ownership supporters in Germany have that safe standing exists there – and I must say I dream of a day when English supporters have as much influence as their German colleagues. I’d love to know who owns my football club, and to know it’s legally protected against just anyone waltzing in, buying it and then doing whatever they want it – or just losing interest!

Marc:

Well if we need clear arguments against safe standing I am happy to provide- let’s focus on the term ‘safe’. Packing out these standing areas is fine, in the theory that everyone sticks to their single allocated space and stays there. But, fans don’t do this. Crowding into aisles and squeezing in, so the fans who desire a tight-packed formation to create an intimidating atmosphere (and such fans do exist), is not ‘safe’- especially in the presence of younger/smaller/less enthusiastic people.

Another issue: rushing. Rushing is a problem in all stadiums, but more so in standing. Does anyone remember our "1-0 and we broke your wall" Torquay League Cup victory a few years back? The front of the stand collapsed under weight of fans celebrating a late Rasiak winner; caused by rushing in a standing area. Safe standing will emphasise this problem, as fans are more keen and able to break forward after goals.

But it isn’t just forward rushing that is dangerous, sideways rushing towards opposition fans is a severely dangerous inevitability of safe standing. Wide, open aisles to rush down and plenty of fans willing to do it make this a real risk. Especially, as many vocal fans prefer to sit next to the away fans (i.e. Y25), this makes the placement of safe standing zones a possibly treacherous decision.

This links further into an over-arching and oft-ignored point about this debate: the treatment of fans. Let’s rewind for the first time as to why we are here, the treatment by the authorities of fans arguably (and I stress that non-total-committance) causing the Hillsborough tragedy by regarding the football fan as a lesser-being, a hooligan. Safe standing would threaten a re-introduction of this into British society and law-keeping; tall fences, nets and large numbers of police and stewards would all be employed. Couple this with the (at least to begin with) necessary segregation between sections and supporters who are standing and it pushes football back into a worse age- one where football fans are treated like cattle. That is not modern football, and that is not what I want to witness in our game.

Jon:

I agree with some of the points Marc makes, but certainly not his conclusions –he seems to be confusing safe standing areas (with lateral rails along rows to prevent surges) with the type of old-style terracing at grounds like Torquay. That wall collapse could never happen in a safe standing area, because the only way crowds can move forward is up and down the aisles.

But we have aisles in all-seated stadia, they do get over-crowded and keeping them clear is the main emphasis for ground authorities. I really don’t see how aisles can be part of the argument – there’s no reason an aisle for safe standing areas need be any wider or any different from one for seated areas.

I do agree completely that supporters are demonised and criminalised and treated appallingly badly – as cattle and as cash-cows, to be herded around whilst paying over the odds for the privilege. It’s the same mentality behind this that says "you can’t be trusted to stand."

And much of this is down to the old, entrenched, stereotype "all supporters are hooligans." So many cling to this, and I’m afraid Marc seems to be doing the same. Because the rest of this stereotype says "anyone who wants to stand must be an even bigger hooligan than the rest."

I utterly refute that tired old cliché! There is just no evidence for it, and statistics also disprove it – it’s nothing more than a lazy assumption implying nothing has changed in football or society in 30 years.

Marc is worried about potential increased mobility in standing areas, but that works both ways – many police and safety authorities support safe standing because they know this extra mobility will make the process of reaching medical emergencies or making arrests so much easier.

As Marc gets the last word, I’d like to close by asking him to answer two simple questions:

Firstly, it’s indisputable that significant numbers of supporters want to stand and will stand – and that all efforts to stop them have failed. Given this, what intuitively must be better – standing in an area designed for seating, or in one designed for standing?

Secondly, Marc obviously has confidence in his arguments, and fair play to him for that. So, why not see them tested in the real world, with an evidence-based trial amongst clubs who want to try it out? That’s what the campaign is about - a trial to see if safe standing would work in 2014. It might prove Marc is right, or it might support my arguments, but we’d then know. So why not support a trial?

Marc:

The idea of a trial of safe standing areas is not one I am against, and indeed it could run fairly and reasonably well, but I fear it is one accident away from a disaster which would put football back decades of progress.

This progress has seen clubs like Reading build magnificent new stadiums that has allowed them to grow as a force in the top 30 clubs in England. Couple that with the common trend that clubs who have built new stadiums and modernised have grown substantially- Swansea, Cardiff, Hull and Wigan to name a few. These stadiums are part of a modernisation of football, sure it’s not all great, but the quality and diversity of English football on and off the pitch has rapidly improved since 1990, fuelled by the introduction of all-seater stadiums at the highest level.

Of course, there is no doubt with added comfort comes reduced atmosphere, but I doubt safe standing would really do much for this at many clubs. Would a rail-seated lower tier make the Holte End a more awesome site? Perhaps. Will a few hundred in the North Stand at Reading push our noise levels up? Probably not. My point is if a club has fans that make considerable noise on a regular basis, they already are doing so. The Kop is a tremendous site and that’s all-seater, the Yellow Wall at Dortmund is just as awesome a site when the seats are in place for a Champions League game. The idea safe standing equals atmosphere doesn’t compute across the board.

I would like to continue by denying that I think football fans are in a hibernation state of hooliganism, waiting to be rowdy at the opportunity to stand. In fact I can extend this to the problem of standing in seating stadiums, where I think most problems conspire from a poor relationship between fans and stewards in a high-tempered atmosphere.
That such a feeling is a problematic and common perception by the media and law is the point I am trying to prove, if we return to safe standing we will be treated as such. In reality I know it is a minority who cause trouble, and a club like Reading is consistently where you won’t find such fans.

But, as we draw this debate to a close. Fans demand safe standing, so let us consider it, but if my cases come to be let us not employ it. These fans are desperate to stop their game being turned into a boring, corporate and unaffordable bubble-to-be-burst. So any tide-turner to prevent such will be demanded, I say we focus efforts elsewhere; creating a sustainable financial structure for the game; stopping corruption and dodgy, unvetted owners; and tackling rising ticket prices that threaten empty seats and a real lack of atmosphere. These are where the battlegrounds we, as fans, can win and will make the real difference in the long-term future of English football.

What do you think of the safe standing debate? Please feel free to comment below.