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Stadiums in the top two tiers of English football, the Barclays Premier League and the npower Championship, have been required to be all-seated for the last 22 years; in other words, standing areas were banned, and clubs had to remove them at great expense.
It was Lord Justice Taylor who outlawed what some see as the traditional method of watching the sport in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, the shocking human crush that killed 96 people while injuring 766. It is impossible to deny the severity of this event, and it is entirely understandable that any lengths taken to prevent something like it happening again would be welcomed in full by the authorities.
However, Taylor’s report in the aftermath of the disaster – the report that eventually led to the conversion of all football stadiums in those two leagues to all seater – did not actually blame the standing provision itself for the crush; it was the failure of police control and the design of this particular stadium itself that were named as the primary causes.
Many football fans across the country would welcome the return of some small, safe, standing areas in football grounds. The Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF), an organisation that is made up of over 180,000 football fans, has recently launched an online petition that aims to encourage the Government and the football authorities to let individual clubs choose whether their stadiums should have standing areas or not.
The FSF have several convincing arguments as to why clubs should be once again allowed to make their own choice. People stand in the seated areas in practically every stadium, and this is even more noticeable for traveling fans in the away ends. This is dangerous as the areas are not designed for standing. It also has annoying results for people who do want to sit, but end up having a big bloke standing up in front of them.
Another argument they give is the success of standing areas in football clubs lower down the leagues. This is slightly less convincing as a reason due to the obvious fact that smaller, less successful clubs would have lower numbers of supporters at the matches, making the standing areas automatically safer.
Standing areas at these smaller clubs are definitely, however, a good thing. I usually watch football at The Valley (I am a Charlton Athletic fan, presumably for something I did wrong in a past life) but sometimes at the nearby Princes Park Stadium, home of Blue Square Bet South team Dartford FC.
Princes Park, quite famously – and hilariously – named “best stadium in the country” by Sky Sports’ Soccer AM in 2007 ahead of the Emirates and Wembley, holds 4100 supporters; three sides are standing, with just one side reserved for seats.
The stadium is an example of how to get standing areas right. If you want to stand, you can stand; if you want to sit, you can sit. Anyone standing in areas that affect safety, such as the perimeter of the ground or exits, is immediately told to move by a steward. From my personal experience, standing at Dartford has been very enjoyable; you are not fixed in one spot, and it is a lot easier to have conversations with people around you about that little fast bloke on the other team.
The caveat is the size difference between Princes Park and The Valley, for example. Charlton’s ground holds 23,011 more people than Dartford’s. In the context of the modern Premier League class football stadium, it would be impossible to provide standing space for that number of people. However, if managed right, small standing areas with easy access and police on patrol could be both safe and successful. These areas would presumably also be cheaper than the current extortionate prices most Premier League clubs charge.
The police, government, and footballing authorities are now meeting with the supporters groups in order to decide whether clubs should have the choice about seated areas returned to them. The debate is definitely one worth having, even though it should be approached sensitively as we approach the 22nd anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster.