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Safe standing: Time is right for calm consideration

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It’s an important moment for safe standing as the Football League consults members on the issue. Tony Barrett is Merseyside Correspondent for The Times and he argues that, while sensitivities around Hillsborough must be respected, the time is right for “calm consideration” of safe standing…

According to official figures, a total of 1,730 people were killed and another 185,540 were injured on Britain’s roads in the year to June 2013. Globally, there were 15 passenger plane crashes resulting in 362 fatalities. Little wonder, then, that there has been such a clamour for cars and aircraft to be banned seeing as their safety cannot be guaranteed.

Or rather, there haven’t been any such demands. Instead, the focus has quite rightly been on improving safety wherever possible, which is a sane and rational response to such problems. There is no need for any sledgehammers to crack any nuts. Which is all a long-winded way of getting to the point of this blog – that the debate over safe standing needs to be equally reasonable and not defined and determined solely by tragedy.

Last week, it was announced that clubs in the Football League were being consulted about the possible return of standing to grounds in the Championship. “It is now over to the clubs to get their views,” said Shaun Harvey, the Football League’s chief executive. “Speaking personally, I do not have strong views on this and it is genuinely a matter for the clubs.”

Like Harvey, I don’t have particularly strong feelings on this issue either way. I identify with the Football Supporters Federation’s argument that many fans would prefer to stand but, equally, I wonder if rail seats would make a significant enough difference to the matchday experience to be worth fighting for. For me, the halcyon days of the Kop, Gwladys Street, Stretford End, the Kippax and all of the other cherished terraces are in the past and it’s difficult to see how standing in front of a folded-up seat with a barrier in front would bring them back.

That doesn’t mean, though, that the debate isn’t worth having but the problem is that whenever the potential for introducing safe standing – and it’s up to you whether or not you believe such a thing is possible – is raised, it is immediately met with references to Hillsborough and Heysel and attempts are made to make those who are leading the campaign feel like they are disrespecting those who perished in those disasters.

It is important to stress that this is not to say that Hillsborough and Heysel are not relevant to the debate because only an idiot would suggest otherwise. When a total of 135 people die whilestanding on terraces then the thoughts of their loved ones and those who investigated the disasters and their causes shouldn’t just be taken into consideration, they have to be absolutely prominent.

But it is also vital that the question of whether it would be possible for standing to be safer in 2013 than it was in the 1980s, when many terraces were rightly described as death traps, is able to be asked without people being made to feel guilty for it. The alternative is for improvements in safety, policing and attitudes towards the wellbeing of supporters to be dismissed as irrelevant, as if no progress whatsoever has been made since 1989.

When Lord Justice Taylor quite rightly recommended the introduction of all-seater stadia in his report into the Hillsborough disaster, he did so at a time when clubs and police forces had proven themselves unable to be trusted to guarantee the safety of those who preferred to stand at football matches. Sheffield Wednesday, for example, had not even seen fit to secure a safety certificate for Hillsborough even though there had been a number of incidents at the ground in the years preceding the tragedy that took place there.

“It was a splendid report,” Peter Robinson, Liverpool’s then chief executive, said. At that time, in that climate, Taylor took the best option available to him, which was to ensure that every fan was provided with a designated seat with the emphasis on safety, security and comfort being heightened. Football has not looked back and although the atmosphere at English grounds has suffered, that has been a small price to pay for millions of people up and down the country being able to attend matches in the knowledge that their wellbeing is not being compromised as it was 25 years ago.

“Before long we’ll have a generation of fans who’ve never stood,” Robinson said at the time and his prediction has now come to pass. Sitting at football matches is now absolutely the norm, although there are also numerous games in which supporters stand in seated areas without any problems. But the cultural sea change in how supporters watch football should not prevent an examination of whether safe standing would be a workable improvement or an unnecessary backward step.

It is not “a retreat from sanity”, as some have argued, to give consideration to safe standing. If anything, a failure to do so would suggest an acceptance that England’s clubs, police, emergency services and football authorities have failed to move on whatsoever since the 1980s, a decade that was darkened by their negligence and laissez-faire attitude to crowd safety.

There has been significant progress that must be factored into the debate and that’s without making the very obvious point that the Hillsborough disaster occurred in one particular terrace, in one particular ground and was caused primarily by the failings of one particular police force and one particular club.

Whether those failings would still be possible today is a moot point – although given the improvements in health and safety provision at stadia one would like to believe they have been rendered if not impossible, then certainly highly unlikely – but again, that should be explored.

If, after such an investigation, it is deemed that safe standing is a contradiction in terms and that there is any risk of tragedy then it should be dismissed. But the very least that the idea deserves is calm consideration without those in favour of it being brow beaten for having the temerity to believe that safety at our grounds has improved sufficiently for it to become a possibility.

The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed are those of the author and they don’t necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn’t be attributed to the FSF.

This article first appeared on The Times website and is reproduced here with permission.

Image – Modern style rail seats in Klagenfurt, Austria.

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