STANDING at football matches is back on the political agenda. Ambitious Tory boss David Cameron is trying to drum up every last voter behind his bid for the title so the Old Etonian toff is making a populist appeal to the soccer loving common man, while relegation threatened Labour MPs in marginal constituencies that are home to top level teams are desperately looking for the tactics that can see them safe.
With an election looming your freedom to watch games in the traditional way is set to become a political football once more. An Early Day Motion submitted to the House of Commons by Portsmouth South MP Mike Hancock on the subject has attracted wide cross party support and a hefty crowd of 125 signatures, more than enough to secure precious time for a debate in Parliament.
Cynics may point out that the issue has come up before. It has. Well organised fans groups like the Football Supporters Federation and Stand Up, Sit Down have been persistently lobbying MPs, ministers and the media for almost a decade and have several times almost made a breakthrough only for political support to ebb away at the crucial moment. But things seem different this time. Has the tide turned on terracing?
We all know the arguments for standing. Even if you were sitting as quietly and comatose as the Stasi stewards would like, to leap up ecstatically when a goal goes in is the only natural response to the stimuli that competitive sports brings. It is the innate human reaction to a shared emotional experience. To try to constrain that through architecture or legislation is to stifle the soul of the sport.
At the flicks, the theatre or opera you sit quietly and may clap at the conclusion. But sport is unpredictable, it is euphoric and it is engaging. It demands a reaction in and unexpected instant. Standing is part and parcel of that. Away from the sterility of seating being in a crowd makes you an active participant in an event. It allows a collective reaction to the ebbs and flows of the game, it amplifies and channels the crowd’s emotions and helps transmit that to the pitch. It is the key to the creation of atmosphere.
Ah, but we have had atmospheres at the Riverside and that is seated the killjoys will say. Yes, we have. But cast your mind back to Liverpool in the Coca-Cola semi, the Charlton match, the Steaua match, and look around. At the height of the hysteria EVERYONE was standing.
Compulsory seating has been a major contributory factor in the decline of the match day experience. We are constantly told the Premiership is the most popular league in the world, that it is a whole new ball game, that we have never had it so good. For Boro the modern era is without doubt the most succesful and dramatic ever. It is unquestionably a Golden Age. Yet still many thousands have walked away complaining that matchdays are “boring” while many more who have remained are clearly not enjoying it. How can that be?
Seating is a key component of the problem. It alienates fans from each other, from the team and from the drama on the pitch. No matter how successful the team, modern grounds are like morgues for the vast majority of games. Old Trafford, the Emirates, even so called hotbeds of passion like Anfield and St James’ Park are largely moribund gatherings of the frustrated.
Boro is no different. Many have persuaded themselves in recent years that it was evil Steve McClaren personally draining away the matchday spirit from the Riverside but it wasn’t. At least not completely. It was just as much the seats to blame, plastic prisons for passion that have helped kill spontaneity and mass spirit. Seats that prevent people moving to join like-minded fans. Seats that force them to sit next towhingers and killjoys and those who ask them to sit down. That is why initiatives like the Twe12th Man are needed, to collectivise the response and fight back against the pernicious trend that supporters should be passive observers.
Fans know that seats have helped emotionally sanitise the game. Clubs know it too but have been persuaded to the contrary by the bottom line during the boom years. Politicians maybe were not aware but are fast switching on after support for the EDM on safe standing exploded.
The EDM, or similar motions calling for a debate on standing, have been shown the red card in the past. Even with the support of then sports minister Kate Hoey a motion two years ago fell short. But now the political landscape has changed, along with the economic imperitives within the game and suddenly a surge of support has raised campaigners hopes.
That groundswell of support has produced some strange results, not least the sudden interest in stadium architecure and fans’ rights of Cameron. When he was dummied into asking for
feelings on the subject on his blog the server crashed as his site was swamped by passionate supporters demanding a return to standing. Now the shrewd populist has pledged to raise the issue “if” he gets elected. That is a Faustian pact too far for me but it shows how
close a once submerged issue is to the political surface.
It is an interesting development. Standing was imposed by a Conservative government still enmeshed in the Thatcherite mindset that viewed ALL football fans no matter how respectable, meek and law abiding as hooligans, the enemy within who should be compelled to surrender their civil rights the moment they set off for the game; a bit like Rome’s carabinieri. That attitude was in itself an abberation because those Tories, dry as the Kalahari, were fierce champions of choice and had a libertarian tinge on most other social issues. Maybe now those who have signed the EDM, like unlikely champion of football culture Ann Widdecome, are merely adopting the position they should have taken in 1990: consumers should have a choice.
Another strange development is the the surprising sight of The Sun, once the vicious leader of the anti-football fan mob, now at the forefront of calls for a debate on standing. The Boro-bashing tabloid has raised the spectre of standing as part of the inescapable logic of its current campaign to reduce ticket prices, itself incredible because the paper is owned by the same people as Sky, who many fans see as the engine that drove prices up in the first place.
It hurst me to say it but the support of the Sun is welcome. Despite its history – let us not forget for a second its own dispicable reaction to Hillsborough – the paper is major opinion former that can cajole MPs and clubs into joining the debate. If that can push the EDM onto order papers and from there force government action it will be a major progressive step.
Of course, the EDM doesn’t call for a return to standing. It calls for a “re-examination of the case for introducing small, limited sections of safe standing areas”, recognises widespread support and notes the quantum leap in stadium design and technology that ensure safety and security. Crucially it calls for supporters’ groups to be involved in any discussions.
A high-profile debate suits groups like the Football Supporters Federation and the Stand Up, Sit Down campaign because the arguments in favour of mandatory sitting are all too easily unravelled. Seating was rushed through for political reasons in the wake of Hillsborough and the legislation enforcing it is riddled with contradictions.
If it is unsafe to stand in the Championship what mystical process somehow eliminates the danger in League One? And if it is unsafe in the Championship why are promoted clubs given a period of grace? If it is unsafe for spectators to stand to watch football why are the authorities continuing to leave the crowd in peril as they stand to watch rugby union and league, speedway, athletics or horse racing from identical terraces? If a stadium is such a high risk environment that fans must sit to watch football why they allowed to stand in the same venue to watch Oasis or U2? If standing is so dangerous why do stewards routinely allow away fans
to do it? Why allow home fans to stand at times of high excitement and to celebrate? Why do Boro encourage fans to stand to clap along to Pigbag before kick-off? Surely if there are irrefutable arguments about stadium design, crowd dynamics or public order then they should apply across the board? That they don’t demonstrates their flimsy logical base.
But of course, there are no compelling arguments. The Football Spectators Act was never about spectator safety. It was about politics. The Taylor Report in the wake of the Hillsborough tragedy categorically said the terracing was NOT intrinsically unsafe. He said the tragedy was down to poor design, poor policing and Sheffield Wednesday’s failure to adhere to their safety certificate. It was not caused by terracing and not by the fans he said.
Wider use of seating was just one of a string of recommendations made in the report but it was the one seized on by the Tory government who saw a way of engineering a quick solution to the public order problem they saw in football law abiding. And it was the one seized on by the clubs who were keen to push for seating as part of an exercise in raising prices that came with the newly cash bloated Premier League.
Now both those imperatives have gone. Football is virtually trouble free. Stewarding and policing have improved, the crowd profile has changed and fans have reclaimed the stands from the hooligans. Not that seats were ever immune from disorder. Meanwhile the clubs’ drive to force prices up has fizzled out. Outside the top three crowds are wobbling and the onus is now on clubs to attract fans back, boost the flagging atmosphere and make the game more affordable.
What better way than new standing sections that can generate more noise and new income.
Supporters of a return to standing were once dismissed as nostalgic Luddites and easily marginalised by the press and the powers that be with scientific bluster about design, gradients and rakes and smears about being soft on violence or indifferent to the prospect of injuries.
But no-one is calling for the crumbling concrete, rusty cages or uncontrolled surges that were once the norm. We don’t want the Holgate back. Especially the open air toilets. Modern fans are sophisticated consumers who want the choice of well designed, well stewarded safe
standing sections with excellent facilities, access and sightlines. Such areas that have been shown to be not only possible but also desirable by Germany’s brilliant generation of new stadiums, many built with cheap standing areas for tens of thousands that can be quickly converted to seating areas for UEFA Cup or World Cup games.
Campaigners are not asking for expensive new stands with their steep rakes designed specifically for seating to be demolished. They are asking for a consumer choice and suggesting small sections, possibly of a few thousand seats behind each goal, to be set aside for those that want to stand.
Every independent poll on the issue shows overwhelming support. The last national fans census revealed 91% of the 2,000 supporters polled in favour of having the choice. In the interim, fans group Stand Up, Sit Down want a relaxation of the rules to allow designated areas of a ground where fans can stand for sustained spells behind existing seats without being ejected. That is, a legal recognition of what is the status quo in exciting games.
Fans are consumers and they are voters. The signatories to the EDM do not as yet include any of Teesside’s MPs. Boro fans should let their representatives know how they feel about this hot political issue. You can contact your MP here.
**This piece is a 12 inch remix of a Big Picture article in today’s steam-driven paper-format Gazette. You can read the 7inch radio edit here.