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Mar 23, 2011

Stand and deliver

The issue of standing areas at football grounds in England has been an emotive issue ever since the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, which led to all-seater stadia.

All four professional divisions in England were initially to remove terraces, a decision that was eventually revised with clubs in the third and fourth tiers no longer required to make changes due to the cost of updating grounds that were largely outdated and not designed for seating. Just the Premier League and the Championship require all-seater arenas.

A common misconception with the Taylor Report is that it advised the banning of standing areas. That is a fallacy. The report suggested a move to all-seater stadia but did not blame standing areas for the Hillsborough disaster - more so overcrowding, poor stadium design and errors in policing. But standing is perceived as the evil, hence "safe standing" is the term used when discussing its return.

Standing as it was in the 1980s could never return. You only have to look at the images of crowds during that period to see that terraces were dangerously overcrowded. Fans were packed in with little thought for safety or comfort. Not just football but society in general is very different today, with an obsession over health and safety. This one reason alone would prevent another Hillsborough.

The Football Supporters' Federation (FSF) has long campaigned for the reintroduction of standing, but its pleas have previously fallen on deaf ears. That the government's Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson, is now ready to open the debate marks a significant step forward.

The main obstacle to the reintroduction of standing areas is the fear factor within both the Premier League and the Football Association. They have voiced opposition to any move away from all-seater stadia. No one wants to give the go ahead only for another disaster to happen.

But it's not the 1980s anymore, when not a second thought was given to supporters. Then, conditions were nothing short of disgraceful, and the modern day football fan could not begin to imagine the dilapidated grounds, terraces and facilities. It was a different world.

If the Taylor Report did one thing, it encouraged clubs to invest in their grounds and in their fans. The cash bonanza from the Sky Television era has enabled that to happen, and it has snowballed as clubs have realised they can maximise revenue from fans and act as businesses rather than mere football teams.

The price for this has been the erosion of the traditional atmosphere at football grounds. Seats have removed the tribal instincts of football fans to gather behind the goal, meeting up as one on every second Saturday at the same place, same time. Football has become sterile, with seats making football a spectator sport, as strange as that may sound.

The fears of the Premier League and the FA are understandable, but if standing returned it would be under completely different circumstances. Standing areas would be small, not whole stands as seen with the swaying mass of Liverpool's Kop. Capacities would be limited rather than the free-for-all that used to exist when clubs would happily sell as many tickets as possible and "pack them in" like the proverbial sardines.

The example of Germany, with the Bundesliga's standing spaces for their hardcore fans, is perfect. Seating and standing is accepted and embraced by fans and those who administer the game. Even during the rebuilding of grounds for the 2006 World Cup, when all grounds had to be all-seater, they were designed with the intention of removing seats once the tournament is over.

As a fan who still gets to stand on terraces in the lower leagues, at grounds such as Peterborough's London Road and Yeovil's Huish Park, there is no substitute for being able to stand at games. In fact, even at seated grounds, I cannot remember the last time I was able to actually sit down. No one ever sits down in the away end, standing is accepted as the norm. A murky, faceless panel called the Safety Advisory Group has reduced some clubs' away allocation, such as Manchester United, for this reason but it is a battle they will never win.

Under the right conditions there is absolutely no reason that standing should not return to the major grounds in England - just don't expect it to happen any time in the near future.

The return of standing would see affordable tickets back in football, and it might just save the game for the everyday fan.

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