The Common Sense Revolution: Bristol City and the Birth of Rail Seats in the UK

Finished seating 2

Yesterday Bristol City became the first club in the UK to install safe standing 'rail seats' in their ground. FSF Safe Standing Co-ordinator Peter Daykin was there and he explains why it was such an important day. The Common Sense Revolution starts here...

It is Wednesday 12th February, 2014, and storm-force winds batter the country. The Somerset Levels are submerged under a flood of biblical proportions making life difficult for some of the key protagonists of the football industry (and idiots like me!) making our slow, soggy way home from a football ground a few hundred yards north of the Somerset county border.

The ground is Ashton Gate, and for anyone who thinks its occupants – Bristol City Football Club – aren’t at the forefront of footballing innovation, know this: the Common Sense Revolution started here this afternoon. Let me explain.

Rail seating: it’s rails… with seating

Bristol City became the first sports ground in the UK to install rail seating – one of a number of technologies referred to as “safe standing” but in effect a hybrid model that allows fans to stand or sit depending on its configuration.

Imagine rows of tip-up metal seats, each of which is positioned under a rail running parallel to the seat backs. In sitting mode supporters can see over the rail in front and in standing mode seats tip up to lie flush with the barrier, such that people can stand behind them unimpeded by the thwack of seat bottoms against calves.

What is most remarkable about BCFC’s installation – three rows of ten or so rail seats in a small block to the side of the main stand – is that under current UK law, their fans aren’t even allowed to stand in them.

Current standing legislation: it really is utter bollocks

The current UK Government considers standing to be unsafe. Actually, that’s not true: the current UK Government considers standing to be unsafe for football fans; supporters of Bristol’s rugby team, who will be sharing Ashton Gate from the start of next season, are OK – standing is only unsafe for football supporters.

Hang on, that’s not right either. The Government thinks standing is safe for supporters of crap football teams – teams that don’t play in the top two divisions of the League – but not safe for those who watch a better quality of football. Unless, of course, a team used to be good (playing three years at Championship level or above) and then turns crap, in which case their standing areas are also unsafe.

With me so far?

The Government is satisfied that standing is safe for clubs promoted from the lower reaches of the league structure – the “pyramid” – but only if they haven’t previously converted to an all-seated stadium by virtue of playing at a higher level.

Luton Town, for example, want to redevelop Kenilworth Road to include some standing areas but, under current legislation, can’t. Unless, of course, they were to move to a new stadium, in which case that would be fine. Clearly.

In short, current UK standing legislation is a mess. A hotch-potch of logical anachronism, the bastard child of a half-arsed attempt to impose standing on all levels of football so ill-conceived and unnecessary that the Government bottled it half way through and relented.

The result, the pinnacle of modern achievement for a country that prides itself as a global leader of safe stadium design, is Ashton Gate, a ground in which fans are licensed to sit in tip-up seats without backs at one end (the club tried to save a few bob in the 90s when seats were imposed on them) but not at the other in fully formed seats that happen to boast the added safety feature of high-backed rails to stop people fall-ing over the top of them. On what planet does that make sense?

Oh, and in case you haven’t recently been to a game of football in the top two tiers of English and Welsh footy, all of the above is irrelevant anyway. You can stand at nearly every all-seated ground anyway – just get a ticket for the “singing area” (nudge-nudge, wink-wink) and join in with the farcical arse-covering box-ticking by which clubs send in the stewards to “ask fans to sit down” on the understanding that we can all stand up once they’ve gone. Bollocks, bollocks, bollocks.

Bristol: the soggy, blowy home of common sense

So well done Bristol City and well done to the Football League. A week ago the 72 League clubs voted to end this perverse charade and someone finally had the foresight, the conviction and the stones to invest a pot of cash in a new technology that makes a mockery of the Flat-Earthers who, without a single shred of evidence, cling to arguments that standing is unsafe but are perfectly happy to countenance 4,000 people standing every fortnight in a terrace at Exeter. Stand up Dion Dublin. Stand up Steve Rotherham MP. No please: stand up.

The H-word

And because no article on standing at football is permissible unless it mentions the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy, let’s deal with that too.

Opinion amongst friends and families of those we lost at Hillsborough is divided. On the one hand, Sheila Coleman, from the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, believes standing and Hillsborough are not linked. Last week she told the Liverpool Echo: “It’s not our position to dictate policy about how fans watch football – we will not categorically state our views. The standing debate transcends those involved in the Hillsborough campaign.

“First and foremost, the focus is the campaign for justice and we remain committed to fighting for it. We can't devote our energy to the standing issue. On a personal level, the standing didn’t kill anyone. It was because of a lack of policing, penning people into enclosures and a breakdown in policing. Having said that, we do argue that fans’ safety has to be at the forefront of any debate on standing.”

Margaret Aspinall, chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, on the other hand, disagrees.

She told the Liverpool Echo: “We know that standing had nothing to do with the disaster, it was the incompetence which led to the gates being opened to allow another two to three thousand people into the already overcrowded pens.

“But that couldn’t have happened if it had been all seating. My concern is about all the people who are going to go to the games and stand.”

Margaret’s position is completely understandable. Had I spent 25 years seeking justice for, and trying to make sense of, the covered-up death of my daughter, I can’t say I wouldn’t feel exactly the same. To my shame, I'm also not sure I would have conducted myself with the persistence, dignity and grace that she and her colleagues have displayed in the face of arguments from people like us these last 25 years.

But her generous and genuine concern for my matchday safety is misplaced. As Sheila Coleman says, the deaths at Hillsborough were not a product of standing and the legacy of those deaths is not the imposition of standing on clubs based on an arbitrary artifice of history, chronology and league ranking.

Hillsborough changed football. It forced the people responsible for the care of those who watch the game to finally recognise and live up to their responsibilities. It shattered the myth that football fans are drunken hooligans deserving of nothing more than to be treated like animals. It heralded an era of badly-needed investment in football’s infrastructure, weeded out the fans that used the game as a vehicle for hatred, violence and bigotry and made it fit for an inclusive and diverse modern era.

Hillsborough did not prove that standing is intrinsically unsafe.

I support the Hillsborough Justice Campaign with every fibre of my being. At the same time, I passionately believe that providing fans with the choice to stand is the best possible response to the current problems of standing in seated areas, declining atmospheres, soaring ticket prices and, yes, concerns over safety.

No contradiction.

The Common Sense Revolution starts here. In Bristol.

The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed are those of the author and they don't necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn't be attributed to the FSF.