Stand Up For Your Rights

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.


9 thoughts on “Stand Up For Your Rights

  1. Vic
    For once, I think you are 180 degrees wrong. We are where we are and the businesses are thriving because of the changes made to stadia not in spite of them.
    Behaviour change – not just to do with violence – is one result of new stadium architecture and is one reason why we don’t see trouble inside stadia any longer.
    It’s also the reason why, if you look at the demographic of Boro support, we can proudly bost the most diverse of followings with women and children well represented.
    The standards of what audiences of any sort want has changed significantly too and given time the tendency of some to want to go back will be overtaken (like keeping ‘old money’ and pounds and ounces) by a generation of kids who’ve never known or anything other. Maybe you’d also like to recapture the nostalgia of running for the A bus after the match and enduring wet, smoking hordes steaming and gobbing on the top deck too.
    Maybe we should all give up ideas of improving the environs of The Riverside too.
    And, as you say, there are the magic moments that bring us all out of our seats – which is fine. Sitting down doesn’t stifle the singing power of fans – the away end when Boro travel is testament to that – even at almost £50 a pop at Chelski. A big crowd and a good match at the Riverside give you the same. It’s just that we haven’t had enough of either.
    The issue about filling the stadia and getting the atmosphere is to do with the economics of ticket pricing, audience psychology and the effective marketing of a product – which Boro are hopelessly bad at. Others are much better.
    We know Gate is trying to give us a product worth buying. Put the 2 together and there’ll be no problem.
    You identify the problem but your dignosis and cure are wrong.
    Stadia design and all seaters aren’t broke so don’t need fixing. Other things do. If we went back to standing enclosures I can guarantee we’d regret it within a season and the seats would be back soon afterwards – possibly following another enquiry.
    And, oh, by the way – nothing is more guaranteed to show that this is wrong headed than a rampant bunch of self-seekers, namely our MPs and the esteemed leader of the HM Opposition jumping on he bandwagon.
    And ask yourself, if this did go through, how many the the ‘honourable’ gentlemen would be in a standing enclosure as opposed to a seat, a box or in the corporate hospitality. Sauce for the gander? I think not.
    **AV writes: One of the biggest problems on matchdays is that old school fans often find themselves sat amongst members of the new family demographic and unable to move easily because of the season ticket straitjacket.
    That can constrain the enjoyment of both parties. The families are horrified that the kids are getting an earful of colourful industrial language and seeing too much aggressive body language on what they expect to be relaxing quality time.
    The diehards are horrified to find themselve surrounded by people who don’t react in the expected way, don’t join in the more robust chants and who sometimes ask them to stop swearing or sit down.
    That friction and the resulting bad atmosphere is cited by both factions as a reason why they stop going. It contributes to the feeling that they are ‘not enjoying it’.
    But it can be solved. One way would be to have a season ticket amnesty and runaround to allow movement so the noisier ones gravitate towards certain areas while the families gravitate towards others.
    The noisier areas will become standing areas by default.
    The people in those areas will encourage each other through chanting and singing and most will stand. Sensible stewarding would let them stand, so long as the area was monitored and there was no danger.
    That is the position of Stand Up, Sit Down who see a possible accomodation with safety authorities that will allow standing in existing seats. Others would go further and ask for German style areas specifically designed for safe standing, with plenty of room, strictly limited numbers and stringent safety measures.
    Remember, the areas will still be all season ticket, they will be monitored by CCTV and well stewarded so the same levels of social control will exist, and the same levels of surveillence. It would not be a Holgate free-for-all.
    Behaviour has changed. There is no mood for a return to violence. That is a red herring. Policing methods are so advanced that there is next to no prospect of violence in the grounds and if there is any sinsister developments away from the grounds no architecture will contain it.
    Groups like the Twe12th Man do not represent a desire for a return to mob behaviour, just a return to colour and noise. They are to be encouraged, if only because the atmosphere is an integral part of the product the clubs are trying to sell, to television and to would-be fans.
    We live in a world dominated by sophisticated consumer patterns and shrewd shopping. People are used to a wide ranges of choice in every area of their life from white goods to education, cars to health services. Why not in football?

  2. It should be about being given a choice, stand up or sit down.
    As you said, designated area’s with a maximum capacity for those who wish to stand is a great idea.
    However it may not happen as it will cost clubs money to remove the seats and set up the standing areas.
    Also traditionally it was cheaper to stand than sit.

  3. Vic
    No mood for a return to violence? Some of the violence is still there – it is just in city centres and pubs because it’s been built out of the stadia. Italy’s not that far away and you have been in the lead on that charge.
    And we manage sophisticated consumer behaviour all over the place where the needs of the majority may be compromised by the excesses of even a large minority – smoking in public places, including The Riverside, for example or to protect the requirements of a deserving minority – access and facilities for disabled, for example.
    No problem with a bit more organisation around who sits where and together or separated and being a bit more relaxed in the right areas about standing in the seats. That’s partly what I was on about when I was referring to us getting a bit cleverer about our marketing.
    **AV writes: I agree there is far more violence in society but that is not football’s responsibility. It is complex cocktail of binge drinking, a lack of peer pressure reinforcing civilised behavior and a declining nations’ cultural and moral vacuum. Making people sit can’t change that.
    You say violence has been built out of stadia but I think it is more a case that it has been priced out and policed out. Seats in themselves do not stop violence if the will is there from the idiots.
    Neither does standing intrinsically create an environment that fosters violence. I watch football at all levels and where standing is still the norm – non-league, places like Hartlepool – there is no air of impending aggro.
    It comes down to behaviour and culture. In Britain that has changed in football, partly due to the demographics, partly due to the innovations by the clubs in grounds but also partly due – and let us not underestimate this – to the vast majority of fans who reclaimed the game from the yobs.
    Tens of thousands of English fans were in Germany for the World Cup and 99% of them were wearing face paint and smiles, shaking hands, swapping scarves and drinking merrily with all cultures. That is evidence of the sea change in the game. Don’t you trust those people to stand for 90 minutes in a well controlled environment?

  4. Vic
    Are there enough people at non-league and Viccy Park to start a fight?
    You and I will have to disagree on the effect of the built environment on behaviour, although I would say that all the real evidence is on my side. Pricing is a factor but then you can charge more for seats.
    You talk about policing but I would lay odds that the amount of policing inside a Prem ground as opposed to stewarding is well below what it would be if standing were introduced. The lack of police actually adds to a more normal, less apparently threatening environment. As opposed, sometimes to what happens on the route into and out of the stadia.
    Do I trust a crowd – doubtless with reduced ticket prices – as opposed to an audience? In short – no.
    Would I trust 12th man to be allowed to stand in their special seated enclosure and sing – yes, of course.
    **AV writes: To be honest it a relief that we disagree on something. It was starting to get a little spooky.

  5. bring back standing then you attract the wrong kind of football fans.
    The current stadiums are not designed for standing up. If everyone stood in front of their seat how do you think someone will be able to get past everyone. with great difficulty. then there is the issue with people falling into the seat infront and before you know it the club is sued.
    there is also the problem with old people and young kids not being able to see because the person infront is a lot taller.
    If they do bring standing back then they would have to reduce the prices in that area..but i cant see tht happening.
    **AV writes: all the problems you point to you get now as people stand at moments of excitement or just because people are going for a cup of key.
    Putting the complusive standers in a seperate area would make it more enjoyable for the sitters because they would not constantly have people blocking their view.

  6. Just because you would prefer to stand and watch a game does not make you a hooligan.
    The standing area’s could be made for season ticket holders only, and then if there is any trouble the instigators could be banned for life.

  7. Seating was part of the big team raid on the people’s game. Gazza’s tears and Nessen Dorma in 1990 made a few cute chairman realise they could market the game to the middle class if only they could shed the image of a slum sport where all the fans were hooligans.
    They knew there was TV money coming into thegame. They knew there was government cash available to upgrade grounds after Hillsborough. But they weren’t going to redesign grounds to suit those who were ready to wee against a wall.
    It was deliberate ploy to create an environment in which they could charge more and target an new affluent market.
    Phase one of that was pricing out the old crowd to make room for cuddly families with their big foam fingers but they could only do that with seats.
    There is no turning back for the business people running the game: football will become the NFL.

  8. standing areas is more difficult to police and stop trouble makers. I dont think bring back standing wil solve the problems, it is more to do with pricing people out.
    I would prefer the area behind the north stand to become a sit where you want area. that way all the singers can sit together and that encourages people to get in the stadium early.
    Its an urban myth that atmosphere was any better at ayresome park. It was only a good atmopshere when it was a big game. Same for the riverside. we have had some electric atmopsheres at the riverside in last 10 years.
    Bring the prices of tickets down to about £10-£15, introduce cash turnstiles and sit where you want policy. that would do more good than terracing.
    **AV writes: That would be brilliant. It ticks a lot of boxes.

  9. Introducing terracing wont bring back those atmospheres. Consistently cheap tickets for every game would. Time to drop the category matches for a start.
    Back in the days of terracing the grounds were intimidating because offensive/racists chants were allowed and people would through stuff on the pitch at the opposition keeper (holgate).
    football has been dragged out off its death bed, but the pendulum has swung too far and its time fans got more power.
    off topic slightly i would be in favour of a national boycott. for example at all premier league grounds no one takes to their seats until 5 minutes after kick off. its time the fans united against the money men

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