STANDING at football is getting a squeeze onto the political agenda again. And there isn’t even an election looming. The contentious idea gets floated occasionally, usually by an opportunist MP or candidate in a marginal constituency with a Championship sized football club and where a few hundred idealist supporters ushed through the ballot box by such a gesture can make all the difference.
In 2001 then sports minister Kate Hoey was persuaded by a coalition of supporters groups to push for a reform of the Football Licencing Authority and allow for new, well engineered German-style “safe standing” terracing areas to be developed if clubs wanted it but the initiative stalled as it ran into the powerful defensive wall built from the emotional impact of the Hillsborough families campaign and a marked lack of support within the Cabinet.
This time it is well organised national fans group the Football Supporters’ Federation leading the campaign to reopen the debate on an issue that still bubbles after a generation of compulsory seating. The idea won’t go away because standing is instinctive at moments of high drama – and those are the moments that galvanise and excite supporters, those moments that are part and parcel of why we love the game.
It is not about a return to terraces. No-one wants to go back to crumbling old shelves that are badly designed, have bad sight-lines and are impossible to steward. Noro is it about creating an environment where hooligan elements can flourish. It is about safe standing, numbered, ticketed, fairly policed, special designated areas where people are not forced to sit by draconian stewards enforcing the current legislation.
People will always stand at moments of high excitement. It is safer to do that in an area designed for that than it is an area designed for sitting. It is also easier to slip off to the concourse or to beat the traffic without disrupting the whole row.
And it may help foster an atmosphere and offer a choice for the increasing numbers of fans who choose not to sit in sterile and soulless all-seater modern stadiums.
The FSF is to launch an on-line petition as part of its campaign to re-open the debate at a time when the game is under greater scrutiny than ever before. A Parliamentary inquiry is on-going into the lax governance of the game, regulation of clubs and the economics of the madhouse that have brought a string of teams to the brink of implosion.
That comes against the background of falling crowds right across the game and a general feeling of disconnect between clubs and fans and what appears a general consensus that a lack of the intangible “atmosphere” is part of the problem. These things have been discussed widely on the blog before.
The FSF had a meeting on Monday with representatives from the police, Government and football authorities and were heartened that the issue wasn’t dismissed out of hand. The government have said they will look at any concrete evidence that there is a demand from supporters, that it is practical to reintroduce, possible to police and that there is a will from clubs to move in that direction or a belief that it is financially viable.
Current sports minister Hugh Robertson said he would examine the evidence for safe standing but played down any likelihood of a change to the law. “The Government appreciates that there are some supporters who would like to see the return of standing areas at football stadia, but do not believe that a compelling case has been made to change the policy, ” he said. The petition is the first step by the FSF to build that case.
The opposition will be considerable – media, policing authorities, stadium safety chiefs, the Hillsborough campaign and big club bean counters wield considerable power while the bogeyman of hooliganism is always at hand to shape the debate. The coalition of political problems facing the campaign have been catalogued and weighed up by the excellent David Conn in the Guardian here.
Chief of those problems was summed when Robertson told the meeting that there was an institutional fear wihin goverment because should there be an accident or crowd trouble on reintroduced terraces. “The minister’s head would be on a spike on Tower Bridge before he could draft a resignation letter,” he said, frankly.
And the Premier League have already moved to head off the move at the pass. Spokesman Dan Johnson said: “Our view is that the benefits of all-seater stadia far outweigh the return of standing areas.”
But the Premier League is dominated by clubs locked into the all seater financial model. And lower league clubs are not bound by the legislation and are free to keep their standing areas. It is only on promotion to the netherworld of the Championship and the prospect of five figure crowds that the thorny problem is raised (Scunthorpe are currently caught in that particular vice)
And it is among that layer of medium-to-large clubs where any possible solution lies.
Championship clubs do not have the luxury of TV money to insulate them from the economics of drifting crowds. In the Premier League the Sky Sports cheque supports the bloated wage bill, the transfer spending and all the trappings of the big time.
But at the next step down every penny counts. As teams like Boro have found, once the parachute payments run out and the iron grip of the season ticket is released, money through the gate is king. And as crowds are sensitive to all manner of pressures – results, the sexiness of the opposition, the manager’s post-match spiel, the weather – it is a financial model where a couple of thousand extra on the gate makes the difference.
Is it time for the second tier to be brave and break ranks with two decades of consensus on seating and carve out some leeway to bring in controlled standing sections? Small, well designed (and well policed) safe standing areas could be part of a mosaic of pricing and ticketing models that allow them to appeal to a wide range of constituencies.
There is a massive disenfranchised layer of potential fans who have been priced out of football, or frozen out during the sell-out boom years. The teenagers from the estates who were by-passed by the Premiership but who carry the flame and could easily be harnessed with a more imaginative approach to pricing and the matchday experience. Groups of lads who want to stand, who want to chant and who want to sing and who see nothing to attract them in seats in the sedate family areas.
We have seen from the growth of the Red Faction that there are people who want to gather with likeminded individuals and make a racket. We know too that such passion needs to be focused and carefully stewarded. Dedicated safe standing areas may offer a way forward in that for an adventurous club. It may also offer another niche in the pricing structure that would allow some flexibility for clubs looking to attract new groups in without alienating existing seated season ticket holders.
Looking at safe standing areas may also offer an opportunity to reconfigure grounds, in Boro’s case to move passionate home fans behind the South Stand goal and shift the ever dwindling numbers of visiting supporters somewhere out of harm’s way where they can’t influence the game but can be easily policed. Only once this season has the prime spot behind the South Stand goal been occupied. That can’t be right. It looks awful. If we could get Boro fans behind that goal stood roaring the team on it could make a massive difference to atmosphere and maybe even results. and now the Red Lion Boro fans’ bar is established there it makes more sense to make it a permanent arrangement and put it at the heart of a reinvigourated fan culture.
Suggestions to that effect in the past have been quickly rejected: the rake of the stands is not right for terracing; the concourse design means the South Stand is the only place to house large numbers of visitors; it would be too expensive… but the dynamics of the club and the game have changed along with visiting numbers and there may now be mileage in looking at all those things again. And more. It must be worth exploring.
We have a manager now who earned considerable kudos by explaining that his love for the club came from his dad and lad apprenticeship watching Boro from the terraces. We have the Power Game. The club sell a variety of retro-shirts. There is an implicit acceptance that much about the old experience was valid, is powerful and has a role in harnessing the collective power of the crowd in the present.
I don’t expect Boro – or any club – to suddenly have a Damascene conversion to safe standing and go-it-alone. But it would be nice to think that rather than being dismissed, now that it is on the agenda again, it is at least being explored and discussed. If it can be used in some way to boost the crowd – either in numbers or in volume – it should be.
Nationally it will take some hard work politically to create the momentum within the game but many clubs of Boro’s stature are feeling the pinch and struggling to prop up crowds. There is room there for an assertive alliance of progressive clubs to push for standing – or at least the ability to experiment with it – as a possible addition to their armoury. I’d like to think Boro could be in there with them.
This is a government hostile to the health and safety ethos of the ‘nanny state,’ that is theoretically committed to deregulation of business, to rolling back layers of local beaurocracy and to a “big society” approach of letting socially valuable institutions take control of their own affairs. There are buttons there to be pressed.
He’s a few things I’ve been pointing people’s browsers at on Twitter of late…
Pre-Sky inflatable footy fun with a nostalic look back at the cult of the inflatable. Where can I get a job lot of blow up Transporters and Parmos?
It was Cloughie’s birthday last week which is as good an excuse as any to rerun the gobby goal-getter’sTV clash with Don Revie that inspired The Damned United.
Bones Like Ghosts: a brilliant, beautiful, evocative squiggly animated homage to Gareth Bale’s destruction of Inter Milan through the medium of felt pens.
Plus archive footage of Stephen Bell, Carlos Marinelli and Alen Boksic.