Safe standing at stadiums should return to English football
There is no rational argument against the introduction of safe standing in Premier League stadiums. If the priority for football clubs is the health and wellbeing of supporters, English clubs need to rethink the viability of all-seater stadiums.
The Premier League has said that more evidence is needed to determine if fans want safe standing. The ruling body's own poll suggests only five percent of those contacted are in favour of the introduction of standing areas. The subject is "complex and nuanced", according to a Premier League statement. Earlier in the month, Tracey Crouch, the Sports Minister, rejected West Brom's application to install a 3,600-capacity standing section.
But the problem is neither complex nor nuanced. There are certain areas in every Premier League stadium where people stand throughout matches. In many cases, stewards have given up trying to make supporters sit down. Away sections, in particular, are frequently a problem. It is not unusual to see fans tumbling over seats during some of the wilder goal celebrations.
Whether the clubs and authorities like it or not, people will always stand in football grounds. The most obvious idea would be to accept this reality and make the environment as safe as possible.
Most of the injuries caused in these circumstances are minor. Scrapes, cuts and bruises are commonplace at places like Anfield, Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge. Any pressure from behind turns the seatback in front of a supporter into a tripwire. Rail seating -- standing areas which can be converted into seats -- would solve this issue. The design places metal barriers in front and behind each individual and stops downward pressure from the rear. It stops people tumbling toward the pitch.
The Premier League's poll is at odds with research conducted by supporters' organizations. All-seater stadiums were introduced in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster, when 96 Liverpool fans died because of a crush on the Leppings Lane terraces in 1989.
For two decades, Merseyside was fiercely resistant to the reintroduction of terracing in any form. It was an emotional rather than rational reaction. That has changed. Last year a survey of nearly 18,000 Liverpool fans by the Spirit Of Shankly supporters' union found 88.1 percent in favour of safe standing.
These figures are replicated at other clubs. The Tottenham Hotspur Supporters' Trust has conducted a number of surveys over four years and found between 85 and 96 percent of those questioned want safe standing. An experiment with rail seating at Celtic has received extremely positive feedback.
The objections are easy to shoot down. Those who are concerned that crowds will become amorphous, swaying masses like they were in the 1980s are deluded. Each individual space is the same size as a seat and is numbered. The ticket holder is required to stand in their allotted space. Safe standing will not increase capacity, nor lead to a lowering of ticket prices. The atmosphere in a stadium may improve, but that is no reason to change the status quo.
The only consideration should be protecting supporters as much as possible. It is trite to suggest that the problem is simply a matter of policing and stewarding. It is impossible to force hundreds of people who do not want to sit into a seat.
If the Premier League and government really are searching for more evidence, they need to look at the Bundesliga. German fans can stand in comfortable conditions. There is clear and obvious proof that the system works.
Even if the Premier League poll accurately judges the mood of the nation's fans, five percent of stadiums being converted to rail seating would probably suffice. Only specific areas of grounds need a change in policy. Those who want to sit should be able to watch the game unimpeded by people standing in front of them. That does not always happen now.
If there were areas with clear delineation as to whether standing was acceptable, stewarding would be a much more simple business. Many stadium managers will admit in private that rail seating is safe and would solve a multitude of problems.
The present situation is another part of the legacy of Hillsborough and the jaundiced view of football supporters that dominated the 1980s. Lord Justice Taylor's report into the disaster recommended eradicating terraces.
Over the decades it has become increasingly clear that Taylor's inquiry was provided with misinformation that deliberately misinterpreted the causes of the disaster. Standing did not kill anyone on the Leppings Lane: catastrophically poor policing and a stadium that did not even have a safety certificate were the cause of 96 deaths. The all-seater policy was built on one of the fundamental lies of Hillsborough.
Football grounds are safer than they have ever been. Safe standing provides a chance to further reduce the risk to matchgoing supporters. It is an opportunity that must be taken.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.