With other top divisions in Europe leading the way for safe standing, is it time for the Premier League to follow suit?
The History of Football, like any other cross-section of human life and endeavour, is replete with tragedies both small scale and large. There are two particular stories, however, that seem fundamental to the fabric of the sport and its position in society. There’s the Munich Air Disaster, with its symbolic resonance, a tale of thwarted, Icarus-like ambition, human excellence falling just shy of the sky. It’s a tragedy that has, for all its desperate sadness, the romance of myth.
And then there’s Hillsborough. There’s no romanticising Hillsborough. It’s an ugly picture of systemic error, incompetence, and injustice. Where Munich reminds us that life is sometimes at the mercy of circumstances beyond the control of even our best and brightest, Hillsborough is a stark reminder of the day-to-day, operational responsibilities within our communal society. Since the 1989 disaster, standing terraces have been banned in all football stadia.
The question of re-instating standing areas is a lowkey ever-present in the footballing community, as common in boardrooms and midweek back-pages as it is in pubs. The debate has re-entered the mainstream this week, after Sports Minister Tracey Crouch turned down West Bromwich Albion’s request to install over three-thousand rail-seats as a trial measure. On the other side of the coin, Arsene Wenger offered his “100% support” for safe-standing in a press conference a few days ago.
Romance vs. Responsibility?
Wenger, the soon-to-be-erstwhile-manager of Arsenal, said “if people were lying in bed watching the game, they could fall asleep sometimes so it is better they stand up”, which perhaps seems a bit rich coming from a man who habitually attends matches wearing a sort of full-length sleeping bag with arm-holes.
But Wenger’s argument is a relatively common one, based on a kind of physical emulation, feeling closer to the clamps and crunches and explosive thrusts of the athletes because you yourself are straining your muscles, on “tip-toe” rather than “the edge of your seat”.
But this debate is not all about romance. For some, it’s inherently political. In a piece published yesterday in The Guardian, Adrian Tempany, a survivor of the crush in Pen Three at Hillsborough, wrote, “Hillsborough didn’t happen because standing areas are inherently unsafe, it happened because the stadium was unsafe and because the agencies charged with ensuring the safety of supporters were grossly negligent”.
For Tempany, all-seater rules seem like simply another way to shift blame onto supporters rather than authorities. “It is time the government stopped confusing a crowd with a mob, and grasped the value in football as culture”, he said.
Magic and Management
Tracey Crouch’s position is that supporters of safe-standing are a “vocal minority” and she insists there are no plans to reconsider the all-seater restrictions, despite the successful implementation of safe standing areas by Scottish Premier League Champions, Celtic (a club, it might be noted, with a chequered past relating to fan-violence).
Working purely on contingency, Crouch is clearly of the opinion that stringent regulation is the best way to avoid accidents in the future. But her approach is in danger of being read as further obfuscation of accountability after Hillsborough.
Fans and football historians are, understandably, sceptical of government claims surrounding the matter. Jon Darch, a pro-safe standing campaigner and operator of Safe Standing Roadshow, says “[Crouch’s] claims that we are a vocal minority are simply untrue. Every survey shows that 80-90% of fans are in favour of safe standing.”
If you were good enough to win the “International Cup” on the PlayStation One football-game ISS Pro Evolution (a forerunner of the popular Pro Evolution Soccer franchise), you were treated to a closing-credits montage accompanied by straight-up the best piece of music ever written. After the montage, the following words appeared on the screen, attributed to one of the game’s designers, “Hatsu: Don’t you think that football is one of the greatest languages? Because once you kick a ball, you can communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world! :-)”
This is the beauty of the sport. It’s an embodied form of communication, community, commingling. It’s global and it’s local at once. Whatever the magic is, it should be cherished, alongside safeguarding and responsibility. Though it’s difficult to figure which side to fall on in the terraces debate, surely we can all stand here.