Safe standing would be "fitting legacy" to Hillsborough victims

Celtic safe standing day1 Greg Mitch2

Dr David Webber reflects on the 1980s political manoeuvring which saw politicians use standing at football as cover for their own mistakes which led to the Hillsborough disaster. Dr Webber is a lecturer in the cultural political economy of sport in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. He is a lifelong Liverpool fan and member of Spirit of Shankly. 

Amidst the early season talk of title challenges, gegenpressing and the imperious form of Adam Lallana, last Saturday afternoon saw members of the Liverpool Supporters Union, Spirit of Shankly, unanimously reach a small but potentially momentous decision to adopt a position on safe standing, and begin a process of consultation with supporters to determine precisely what that position should be.

Of course, this early position does not automatically mean that the Spirit of Shankly will end up backing the growing calls for safe standing to be introduced in England and Wales. Despite broad support amongst many Liverpool fans for safe standing (including many Spirit of Shankly members), considerable opposition to it still remains from several of the Hillsborough families, survivors of the tragedy, a number of Merseyside MPs, and, perhaps inevitably, the club itself. Over the coming months however, the Spirit of Shankly has committed itself to, at the very least, democratise its stance on safe standing and reach out to a broad range of its constituencies over what is, quite rightly, a particularly sensitive issue to all those associated with Liverpool Football Club.

Such an approach has not always been evident in the divisive politics of safe standing. Those grieving lost loved ones at Hillsborough have had to spend over a quarter of a century fighting for justice. As they have tried to come to terms with their own loss, their irrepressible struggle has been frequently ignored, mocked or used to stereotype Liverpool as a ‘self-pity city’. Insofar as the safe standing campaign itself is concerned, many within that movement have felt that the vocal opposition of the Hillsborough families has meant that fans across the country are being denied the better atmosphere, choice, and lower ticket prices promised by rail seating technology.

English football’s governing bodies have done little to reconcile this seemingly intractable debate. Reluctant to amend the laws concerning all-seated stadiums, successive governments, the Football Association, the Premier League and the Sports Grounds Safety Authority have all, at some stage or another, instrumentalised the concerns of the Hillsborough families so as to maintain their own incalcitrant stance over the issue of safe standing.

More recently, some have seized upon a recent paper on safe standing produced by the Adam Smith Institute – the free-market think-tank that provided the ideological blueprint for Thatcherism itself – to underpin their demands for change. Yet, given the role that Thatcher’s government played in the lead up to, during and the subsequent cover-up of Hillsborough (not to mention Thatcher’s own personal disdain for football supporters) this represents the clearest contradiction yet.

It is disingenuous to promote the ‘business case’ for safe standing – to ‘give the punters what they want’ – at a time when clubs are constantly being reminded that supporters are not customers. As Celtic have found since rail seating was introduced, demand for these safe standing tickets has outstripped supply with around 3,000 of the club’s season ticket holders currently on the waiting list for a spot in Celtic Park’s 2,600-capacity rail seating area. With the cost of football only increasing in England, it is unlikely that clubs, following the self-same free-market logic promoted so vigorously by the ASI, will charge anything other than a premium price for safe standing tickets, and the unique ‘matchday experience’ that it offers for fans in these parts of the ground.

Simply framing safe standing within the strictures of the market is therefore not enough, and were it to be introduced on these terms alone, it would do little to change the way in which fans are viewed by their respective clubs, and authorities responsible for policing matches.

In terms of a radical reimagining of the way football supporters are treated in this and other countries, the introduction of safe standing remains of the utmost importance. If rolled out properly, and with the type of extensive and democratic dialogue in which Spirit of Shankly is looking to engage, the deeply ingrained attitudes faced by supporters of every club can finally be displaced. More importantly, it can deliver tangible justice for the ninety-six Liverpool fans who died at Hillsborough by affirming in a very physical sense, once and for all, that it was not they or their fellow supporters in the Leppings Lane End who caused the tragic loss of life that occurred on that fateful day twenty-seven years ago.

Of course, the Liverpool fans have been exonerated before. Initially in the first Taylor Report, and last April at the conclusion of the Hillsborough inquests where fans were cleared of any wrongdoing, and blame was pinned instead upon the chronic failures in police control, the lackadaisical response of the emergency services, and a dilapidated stadium.

However, for as long as Britain’s stock of football stadiums remain all-seated, as per Lord Taylor’s recommendations, culpability for Hillsborough will continue to rest, albeit implicitly with the Liverpool supporters. The argument is often made that if Hillsborough had been an all-seated stadium in April 1989, the disaster would not have occurred. Yet this does not square with the first-hand accounts of those who were there, and serves only to lay the blame at the door of the thousands of Liverpool fans ordered to make their way through Gate C, opened at the behest of the match commander, David Duckenfield.

Under a similar set of circumstances prior to the game kicking-off, had Hillsborough been an all-seated stadium then the crush that ensued would still have happened. Indeed, as at the all-seated Ellis Park stadium in 2001 where forty-three people were crushed to death, it is likely that serious injury and a loss of life would still have occurred with fans falling over the seats in front of them in an attempt to escape the surge in the crowd triggered by a loss of police control.

In the light of the evidence presented to Lord Taylor, his interim report published in August 1989, was critical of the police officers in charge of the semi-final. However, following pressure applied by Thatcher herself, the main thrust of Taylor’s final report published the following January, shifted towards Britain’s decaying terraces. While Taylor was clearly right to order that these be modernised, an opportunity was missed to challenge the prevailing antipathy that existed towards football fans then, and which persists to this day. Despite some piecemeal reforms since Hillsborough and the Taylor Report, the vast majority of football matches are policed along the lines of crowd control rather than crowd safety.

All-seated stadiums provide but one of a number of ways of controlling crowds and containing supporters in the event of trouble. From all-seated stadiums to banning orders and ‘bubble matches’, supporters continue to find themselves subject to a series of draconian measures designed to curb and control their movements and behaviour. Although the creaking, crumbling pens that once caged spectators have now, thankfully, been consigned to the past, match authorities remain animated more by the threat of public disorder than allowing the majority to enjoy the game in comfort and security.

Far from guaranteeing the safety of supporters, as it is often claimed, all-seated areas can pose a serious risk of injury to fans during moments of celebration. Safe standing, on the other hand, means precisely what it promises: an opportunity for supporters to stand – and celebrate – in a safe environment.

It is important to be clear on this point. Safe standing does not mean a return to the dark days of the huge, crumbling terraces and the lethal perimeter fences that penned supporters in like cattle. With a safety barrier on every row and rail seats that can be bolted upright, fans can stand safely without the threat of crushing, overcrowding, or falling over the seats in front of them.

The rail seating technology that has been introduced successfully in Germany, Sweden, Austria, and now, more recently in Scotland at Celtic Park, allocates each spectator a place to stand where their seat would otherwise be. It eradicates the surges and sudden movements in the crowd that were a feature of football’s terraces prior to the early 1990s. Crucially therefore, it offers the most effective way yet of ensuring the safety of spectators.

After twenty-seven years, the new Hillsborough verdicts finally delivered what the families and survivors of Britain’s worst sporting disaster knew all along: that their loved ones were unlawfully killed, the behaviour of those who survived was beyond reproach, and there was a cover-up to protect those who had failed in their duty of care. With prosecutions still to be brought against those responsible for the disaster, their long march to justice is not yet over. However, the painful findings of these inquests can at least begin to bring some comfort and closure to those who have campaigned for the truth with such dignity and resilience.

For the rest of football, with these new verdicts, a golden opportunity has emerged to transform the way in which football fans across all generations are able to enjoy a game woven into the very fabric of the nation.

In the midst of the debates surrounding safe standing, it is often forgotten that those who lost their lives at Hillsborough were themselves football fans. They loved football. It was their passion to watch their team surrounded by their fellow supporters. These were Liverpool fans with dreams and songs to sing. They had arrived in Sheffield buzzing with the excitement of the possibility of another Wembley appearance, of repeating their triumph over Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest side twelve months earlier, and making amends for their shock defeat at the hands of Wimbledon in the final that followed. As thousands of Kopites wound their way along the Pennines on that gloriously sunny spring morning, any supporter in the country would have gladly swapped places with them if it meant they could watch their team in an FA Cup semi-final. Club allegiances do not, and should not come into it. Wherever we are from, whatever colour our scarf, however young or old we are, whether we recall the events of Hillsborough or not, we are those fans who died and were injured.

It falls to all of us therefore to make this simple ritual of going to the game as safe as possible. Those charged with the responsibility of running football however, have a particular obligation. They owe it to the ninety-six and their families to prioritise the safety and wellbeing of all supporters. The safe standing technology now available enables these authorities, should they share this sentiment, to make this a reality, and deliver a fitting legacy to those who lost their lives at Hillsborough. Only then will a lasting justice for the ninety-six be finally realised.

Thanks Greg Mitchell for the image used in this blog.