Seating room only?

The Hillsborough disaster was a tragedy in many regards. Not just for the 96 poor souls who were crushed to death on that fateful day but the wider effects on English  football in the long term aftermath. The subsequent report by Justice Taylor convinced the FA to enforce new ground regulations which led to many clubs implementing conversions of existing terraces or knocking them down altogether. Some of football’s most iconic terraces disappeared from existence. The Stretford End, The North Bank, The Kop, The Holte End and the Kippax were all redeveloped from iconic terraces into pale all-seated imitations of former terraced strongholds.

The first warning back in 1923. The White Horse FA Cup Final.

There’s no doubting the events at Hillsborough and the subsequent aftermath gave English football a much needed kick up the arse in regards to stadium safety, stadium design, stewarding, match-day control and policing. Indeed the Taylor Report highlighted that the major causes of the Hillsborough tragedy was down to totally inadequate policing, stewarding and crowd control. It was a tragedy waiting to happen. Justice Taylor himself said that his report was actually the 9th report written about crowd safety and control at English Football Grounds. It’s amazing isn’t it that 8 reports went largely unheeded? It started with the Shortt Report in 1924 after the disorder at the 1923 “White Horse” FA Cup Final, followed by the Moelwyn Hughes report in 1946 when 33 lost their lives in overcrowding at Bolton’s Burnden Park, then in 1966 we had the Chester Report which was commissioned by the Government which led to the Harrington Report of 1968 on the problems of crowd behaviour followed a year later in 1969 with the Laing Report. Again, findings went unheeded as 66 supporters lost their lives in the disaster at Ibrox. Lord Wheatley made a report in 1972 after this tragedy in 1971. Then we had the McElhone Report in Scotland in 1977 investigating Football Crowd Behaviour which was followed in England in 1984 when an Official Working Group on Football Spectator Violence (A slightly odd name with the gift of hindsight). Again it took another awful tragedy at a football match to create yet another report. This time we had the Popplewell report after the awful events at Bradford City’s Valley Parade in 1985. Popplewell in his findings actually mentioned all of the above. In his summary he said “almost all the matters into which I have been asked to inquire and almost all the solutions I have proposed,have been previously considered in detail by many distinguished inquiries over a period of 60 years”.

I think that by the end of the 1980’s watching football at a ground had become one for the non feint hearted. The vast majority of grounds were in tight residential areas reflecting their roots and place in the local communities. Most had little or no investment in improving the accommodation and facilities for supporters, of the hardcore of fans who did go, more than a few were involved in Hooliganism. It bred a culture of poor leadership from the FA and the Football League, seen as a major inconvenience in terms of manpower and cost by the police and fans being treated badly by the clubs. What legislation and directives from the previous 8 reports before the Taylor Report had left clubs virtually a free reign with no direction or clear legislation to implement what ground “improvements” they wanted to. Modified turnstiles, seating implement in standing areas, segregation of share terraced areas with fencing and anti-pitch invasion high fences to cage fans in. Ken Bates, infamously, wanted to go one step further and install electric fences. It’s worth noting at this point that if there had been high fences at the Valley Parade then the death toll would possibly had been in the thousands rather than the 55 killed and 260 odd injured. You could further argue that if advice given in the Shortt report in 1924 had been acted upon then the Hillsborough Disaster would’ve never been a disaster. The recommendation back then was to make sure that entrance turnstiles should be situated far away from the ground itself and act as a form of crowd control.

More standing than seating at Rot Weiss Oberhausen

That’s not to say that of course that this dangerous cocktail of shabby inappropriate improvements, poor stadium facilties, inept organisation, crowd management and fans intent on causing trouble was confined to these shores. The disaster at Heysel proved that idiotic fans coupled with the elements above could cause so much cost to human life in a stadium passed as “fit for purpose” by Europe’s biggest football governing body.

Justice Taylor wanted a change in the entire ethos in the approach to all elements of Stadium Design and accommodation, crowd management and the whole approach to football supporters. Ibrox, the scene of the 1971 disaster had been completely rebuilt and re-designed with an emphasis on all seated stands and upgrading facilities for supporters in order to make the stadium a more welcoming place and one that supporters would turn up in plenty of time for the match instead of turning up en masse at 2.55pm completely tanked up. That’s not to say that in reality Ranger’s fans don’t get tanked up in the Louden Bar before the game and sing “Penny Arcade” until they are hoarse. Whether or not Justice Taylor caught Ibrox on a good day remains to be seen but on point 61 in his report he made his most concise and probably most jumped upon point. He said “There is no panacea (“Solution” to you and me) which will achieve total safety and cure all problems of behaviour and crowd control. But I am satisfied that seating does more to achieve those objectives than any other single measure.“. He continued in the following points to argue that seating would eliminate crowd surges in reaction to “on pitch incidents” and would more importantly allow better use of CCTV equipment to pinpoint flashpoints in areas as it would restrict people’s movement. Funnily enough he also said that if you had a seat at the football match then you would have your own personal space and you wouldn’t be in personal contact with others. That my dear Justice Taylor depends upon how many Pies you’ve eaten.

This is the part I have the most trouble with. I’ve no complaint that something had to change but I wonder if the motivation into making stadiums all seated was done for the right reasons. Anybody who’s been to English all seater stadium and who isn’t the smallest person might find seating more uncomfortable than standing. I know I do. It doesn’t seem to matter how old or new the stadium is. Some are very new and very tight (St Mary’s Southampton), some are old terraces with bolted on seats (Stockport and Luton Town), some have crap views from new seats on old terracing (Ashton Gate). Luton Town in particular is a particularly awful experience. The legroom is so minuscule it’s unbelievable. In contrast Reading’s Majedski Stadium and Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium are excellent and the new Wembley is very good. But I think that the most comfy seat award goes to Helmond Sport in the Dutch Second division.

But why did we have to go all seater so quickly? At the time of the Taylor report the ratio of standing areas to seating areas in English football grounds was around two to one. Most if not all league clubs agreed that it would be good to reverse the ratio but at the same time both the FA and Football Supporters Associations wanted to preserve some degree of standing accommodation for the reasons of 1) better atmosphere 2) lower price of admission 3) ensuring that all seated areas didn’t detract too much from a stadiums capacity. Taylor poured scorn on all of these points saying that 1) he wasn’t convinced that all seated areas detracted anything from the atmosphere 2) he believed that the increased safety and supposed comfort would be worth the extra cost and 3) he pointed out that only certain clubs would be hampered by having a lower potential capacity if they went all seated. The problem was that although this may have been true at the time, the future effect of having all seated accommodation and the driver of new money from Sky meant that clubs were gradually able to up their prices and attract a new breed of football fan to the stadium. The demand went up, the prices went up and the traditional working class supporter either had to pay the new price or watch it at home or down the pub or do something else.

Now we are at the stage where most English clubs are pricing football at an artificially high price and are trusting on a hardcore fanbase to pay the price no matter what. This season I’ve paid £22 to sit at Dagenham, £21 to sit in crappy seating at Southend and £25 of my hard earned went into the Swindon coffers. This for 4th Division football. Yet on my travels this season I’ve watched German 2nd division football for 11 Euros.

Signal Iduna Park in the process of being re-converted back to standing after the Arsenal match

It’s towards Germany I look on in admiration. Again, they’ve been clever and have learned from the mistakes we have made. Most of the Bundesliga 1 grounds have been recently built or renovated with most including standing areas and most of these can be converted back into seating for International and European tournament matches. For example Borussia Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park’s capacity for domestic matches is 80,720 (seating and standing) and for International matches it’s converted back to an all seated capacity of 65,718. The standing capacity at Dortmund is around the 25,000 mark. Entry prices to these standing areas in Germany are low (Moenchengladbach is 12 euros). Clubs like to ensure that they keep their roots with the working class support bases, apart from Bayer Leverkusen who’ve made themselves a reputation as a family club and try to attract the sort of supporters most English clubs want to attract. Seating prices in German stadiums who have standing areas are priced in comparison to the cheaper English Premier League clubs apart from the really expensive seats in the middle of the main stand.

This is the problem facing most English clubs. If you aren’t Man United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham or Arsenal then you will reach a median ticket price which will start affecting crowds. Average attendances in the Bundesliga are around the 43,000 mark which in world sport is second only to the American Football NFL. Recent trouble in the Fortuna Dusseldorf-Hertha Berlin Relegation/Promotion play off has ignited a debate in Germany whether standing areas are such a good idea. They do have the capacity to convert these standing areas back to seating quickly and cost effectively but the effect on attendance capacities has made sure that for the near future standing areas will remain in German football. The premature pitch invasion at Dusseldorf is hopefully a one off.

But could we one day see a return to terracing at the top level of English football? The general consensus seems that although traditional supporters would like to see them back the demographic group now watching live football has changed and most them are quite happy to sit in expensive seats, piss around with iPhones and moan at Arsene Wenger’s supposed inability to play Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for every minute of every game. But on Match of the Day you’ll see fans standing in seated areas or personally experience the annoying habit of getting out of your seat everytime the ball comes within 40 metres of the goal. The sensible thing would be to implement seated areas. Clubs would have to reduce prices accordingly and most of them will probably be against doing that. Aston Villa so far seem to be the only club who have publicly come out and said that they would be in favour of converting a part of Villa Park back to terracing. Let face it, Villa do need the fans at the moment!

To my mind there’s nothing inherently dangerous about large terraced areas at football grounds, providing that there is good stewarding, good crowd management and good facilities. In German they even have beer freely available both inside and outside the ground. I’ve seen drunken fans get chucked out at Preussen Munster and Hertha Berlin skinheads sharing a picnic table with a Borussia Moenchengladbach family and having a beer together at Borussia Park. Could this happen in England? Or can we still not trust supporters to behave themselves with both a beer and the ability to stand and watch a game of football? The German utopia of beer and cheap terrace has had it’s first real warning shot in the recent aftermath of the Dusseldorf affair. We can only hold our breath in England.

It’s going to take a big club to start the ball rolling. If a Manchester United or a Liverpool decide to build a better stadium than Old Trafford or Anfield and propose plans to include terracing then it might act as an irresistible force for change. But I fear that the wants and wishes of the traditional supporters have largely been ignored and will continue to be ignored. The Premiership is about the spectacle it present’s itself to be to a global television audience. Getting an extra 10,000-15,000 more fans in on a more affordable pricing structure whilst risking the negative public perception of standing areas is probably too much of an ask. When the Premiership’s finances finally implode and the richer fans bugger off back to rugby union the traditional football supporter I’m guessing that we won’t see standing areas at top level English football stadiums.

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