In recent weeks there has been an increasing call from the Football Supporter’s Federation (FSF) for all-seater stadia to be scrapped. This call has favoured the includsion of safe-terraced areas, that are currently used in some arenas in Europe. Werder Bremen’s ground, The Weserstadion, has been cited as an example of how terracing and seating can be incorporated together. Their (Werder’s) safe-terracing involves rows of bars that have folding seats, when the seats fold back there is enough room for a supporter to stand safely. The FSF’s National Supporters’ Survey has showed that 90% of fans back the choice to stand or sit. With Dan Johnson, the Premier League’s chairman, commenting that “the benefits of all-seater stadia far outweight the return of standing areas”. Despite this split stance Minister for Sport, Hugh Robertson, has agreed to investigate the feasability of safe-standing at football grounds in England, but has not been willing to go any further than an investigation a this present time. Given this practice is already in place in Europe, should those in charge of running Premier League football, and the British government, be more receptive to the FSF’s perspective?
All-seater stadia in the top-flight of English football were completed in 1994. This type of stadium, moving on from the rolling concrete terraces that had been in place previously, was introduced after considering the recommendations made by the Taylor report. The Taylor report was commissioned to reflect on the mistakes that led to the Hillsbrough disaster, where 96 Liverpool Football Club fans tragically died at the FA cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. It found that the Hillsbrough tragedy had been caused by a number of factors, such as poor policing and the standard of the ground, that led to the congestion of fans in one area, and ultimately led to the death of 96 Liverpool football fans. This tragedy happened on a wave of negative press throughout the 1980s. This press was mainly concerned with hooliganism, which was rife in English football during this period. This took in the high profile Heysel tragedy. Before the 1985 European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus. Sets of supporters clashed and a wall on the terracing collapsed leading to the death of 39 supporters, 32 of them Juventus supporters, with over 200 hundred injured in the collapse. This led to English football clubs being banished from European competitions for 5 years.
On the wave of disgust and concern surrounding these tragedies, and the regular violence occurring in and around football grounds, there was a call for the authorities to begin to protect supporters at football grounds. The Football Spectators Act (1989) was brough in as an attempt to quell some of these issues. The act was designed to provide, and compell, the authorities, both footballing and legal, with powers to restrict hooliganism. Buried within this myriad of legal technicalities, designed to assist authorities in reducing acts of hooliganism, was the idea that football authorities should look to provide the highest level of safety for their supporters, with all-seater stadia being required of clubs in the top two flights of English football from the 1st August 1994. Given the legal, moral and financial weight that has been thrown behind the move towards all-seater stadia why do the FSF want to return to some form of standing area?
The FSF chairman, Michael Clarke, has argued that terracing should be re-introduced as many fans stand at matches anyway. The FSF’s “support safe standing” initiative has backed itself on the notion that at many grounds fans leave their seat in an upright position and stand anyway. They argue that supporters should be given the choice between standing and sitting, and should be allowed the right as a paying supportor to make this choice. They deem that supporters in the top two divisions of English football should not be punished because of the standard of football they choose to watch. They also argue that other sports in Britain are allowed terracing, some rugby league grounds still possess some kind of terracing. Is the FSF’s argument strong enough to change the mind of the authorities in this country?
It seems unlikely that the argument posed by the FSF will come to fruition. This argument could be rejected for any number of reasons. Return to more intimidating and dangerous times, may be fear mongering but may well be closer to the fact than a supporters association would be happy to admit. Lessons were learnt in the 1980s that shouldn’t so easily be forgotten. These lessons have helped to make football more family friendly, making football grounds a safer place for women and children. The main strand of the FSF’s argument centres around the fans right to stand or sit. With the focus on safety, and protecting supporters, in the government’s Green Guide it seems unlikely that there would be a sea change away from this towards allowing people to stand. Could Premier League clubs provide the backing that this argument would need to change parliamentary opinion?
If the FSF were to get even a handful of Premier League clubs to support their petition it would be a tremendous fillip. Unfortunately for the FSF it is more likely that they would get a similar reponse as they have received from the government. The 2009 Home Office report on safety at football matches released the figure that Premier League clubs have invested, over £1.5bn, in stadium facilities over the past 13 years. In these more frugal times, and with the onset of financial fair play rules, it is more likely that clubs will be reigning in their spending. This means that will not be spending revenue on altering already established stadia. Replacing seated areas with the technology needed to provide fans with the option to stand or sit would only lead to clubs spending already clipped revenue streams to modify areas of the ground that do not currently need modifying. With UEFA regulations requiring all clubs competing in their competitions, Champions League and Europa League, to provide all-seater stadiums, they (PL clubs) are unlikely to provide a stadium that could stop them from reaching these lofty heights. What could the FSF do in an attempt to peruade the authorities and the clubs that bringing in safe-seating would be a worthy project?
The current argument put forward by the FSF is counter intuitive at best. FSF chairman Michael Clarke has argued that terracing should be re-introduced as many fans stand at matches anyway, admitting that this is a safety risk. When this is coupled with their want to bring in safe-seating, seats that fold up and convert into a standing area, it would appear that they have answered their own argument with their opening remark. There is certainly an argument that fans also have the right to be comfortable and to enjoy the game without having to stand and endure other fans blocking their view, which has the potential to create a negative atmosphere at grounds and turn people away from the game. It is true that other sports in Britain are still permitted to have terracing, but none of these sports have a history of support that contains violence and disorder at their grounds. Is their hope for the FSF’s cause?
There is some, as the government have agreed to revisit their decsion, but that may amount to little more than politicians trying carry favour. To by-pass some of the problems outlined the FSF need to bring about an argument that is based on something more tangeable than fans rights to stand, and seating areas being unsafe to stand, if they are to see their argument gain any momentum. To change the mind of the British Home Office, it would be politically difficult for any Home Secretary to back this movement, and the mind of those controlling football in this country the argument must be more compelling than the one the FSF is currently espousing.