A non-existent title race. Poor attendances. Below average players. Rabid sectarianism and even a blanket alcohol ban that dates back over 30 years. Scottish football isn’t the first place we tend to look to when it comes progressive and forward thinking ideas.
But, with Celtic introducing rail seating (also referred to as ‘safe standing’), will they now be trend setters for the rest of the football clubs who have secretly been longing for someone to actually say ‘let’s try this’ for some time now? The last General Election saw plenty of vote-needy politicians wading into the debate and publicly nailing their colours to the pro-safe standing mast in the hope that their actions would connect with an electorate who they obviously feel are hungry for change when it comes to watching football.
Let’s get one thing straight, however, campaigning for a change in the way that people watch football in the UK predates any involvement from Welsh Conservative and Liberal Democrat hopefuls. It’s mostly down to organisations like the Football Supporters’ Federation and countless other grassroots groups who’ve been doing the leg work and research on behalf of frustrated match-going supporters for years.
Following Celtic’s decision, it would appear the wheels are now slowly turning in favour of some sort of compromise between those who wish to stand at games and the ones who are fed up with the ad-hoc nature of watching football that seems to have evolved with fans perched precariously in gangways and propped-up against rows of flimsy plastic seats. So much so, in fact, that the Independent Football Ombudsman is actually advising UK government ministers that the rules are simply no longer enforceable. And it’s those three words, ‘no longer enforceable’, that have driven this movement forward – not just by those who attend games, but by those whose job it is to implement whatever legislation that does or doesn’t exist.
This inconsistency, confusion and general chaos is actually something this writer had the ‘pleasure’ of experiencing recently at Old Trafford. With the entire Stretford End stood as one behind the goal, the relative excitement of the game that was unfolding on the pitch started to play second fiddle to a different kind of contest that was taking place in the stands. As stewards began attempting the thankless and virtually impossible task of ‘asking’ hundreds of people to take their seats, I heard one of the most bizarre conversations unfold. “You won’t tell us to sit down next week against Arsenal or when the Scousers come,” shouted one angry Mancunian voice. “No. Because those are big games,” replied the flustered looking steward (Stoke were the visitors that day). “What about that lot, they’re all stood up,” replied the rowdy United fan, pointing to the band of away fans who were all on their feet. “We can’t make them sit down,” shouted the (now) angry official. “Away fans always stand en masse, it’s too difficult.”
Now, as someone who has been watching football for around 30 years and one that has grown frustrated with the way watching football these days has now become (not to mention a journalist and all-round nosey prick), this was music to my curious ears. So, at half-time, I decided to follow this row as it progressed down the steps and into the concourse area below, where, by this time, a couple of police officers were trying to keep the peace. And, as I’d been surprised during the confrontation at how several policemen had simply stood by and watched while the debate rumbled on, naturally I headed for the nearest member of the Greater Manchester Constabulary to delve a little deeper.
“The law states that all football grounds must be all seater, but there is no law saying that everyone has to sit down. We only get involved if there is a breach of the peace,” the friendly officer explained to me, while probably wondering why I wasn’t stood at the bar necking as many pints as I could in 15 minutes like everyone else.
There it was. In a nutshell, that short, yet succinct, explanation illustrated perfectly the problem that football clubs and match-goers face. The fans don’t know the rules, the stewards don’t know the rules… and the police kind of know the score, but are reluctant to get involved unless it gets nasty. No wonder there’s a call for change.
Let me put my cards on the table, now. I’m fully in favour of safe standing. Not because I want a return to the days of overcrowded death traps where people were penned in like cattle when I was first going to matches and often fearing for my life – it’s more because I feel people should have the choice as to whether they want to stand and watch football or sit down, just like they do at many other large events…. where the issue is not even up for debate. Just take a look at Glastonbury: over 100,000 people stood, danced, drank and probably took God knows what else while watching Lionel Ritchie in 2015 and nobody batted an eye-lid.
Hillsborough has to be in our minds as we move forward with this issue and, as someone who was regularly going to games in that era, I’m more than mindful of the sensitivity around the issue, as well as being fully aware of the horrors that unfolded that day. I have several friends who were there in April 1989. Some who speak openly about it, some who choose not to. And if Manchester United hadn’t lost to Nottingham Forest in the previous round, it could have been me stood in the Leppings Lane end that day. So, this isn’t some flippant rant by someone who wasn’t around back then or doesn’t care for the reservations some people hold. But, in my opinion, standing did not cause that disaster. A combination of catastrophic mistakes and oversights did. However, the strides that have been made in crowd control and match day policing since then have been huge, and I genuinely believe that the technology that is in use by the clubs across Europe (who have introduced rail seating) is more than capable of dealing with any problems that may arise.
Clearly fan safety has to be the top priority. But, if we’re honest, football fans are being unfairly stigmatised by a piece of legislation drafted in a bygone era to address a different set of problems that simply don’t exist today. A recent report in The Guardian found that supporters overwhelmingly back a safe standing pilot – with 84% also believing that dedicated standing areas would also reduce the likelihood of the type of conflict between fans and stewards I witnessed at Old Trafford. Of course, not everyone wants to stand during games, but the present situation, where stewards often turn a blind eye to the ones that do, serves no-one’s interests and moves us no further forward, while also punishing those who want to sit, as well as those who wish to stand.
In an era when going to the match for some has simply become an experience they can easily do without and probably can’t afford – and the football supporter is seen as more of a paying customer – the introduction of safe standing could just be an opportunity to change the landscape of going to football for the better. I’m not kidding myself that introducing some form of standing at matches will suddenly change everything overnight with terraces once again resembling a Lowry painting, with a sea of flat cap wearing spectators smoking Woodbines having paid pennies to get in. And from a personal point of view, I will probably still view modern football with the cynicism that I do now (but that’s just because I’m an old git).
However, with the eye-watering amount of cash that clubs will be receiving in 2016 as part of the new television rights deal, introducing rail seating might just offer a little something in return to the disgruntled supporter who may wonder what’s in it for them. It might also be an opportunity for fairer pricing and might even encourage a new generation to start going to the game – while also appeasing those who are frustrated with the current climate.
I’m not saying it will. But it might.
‘Everton Away 1997’
– Pic by John Johnson