Mohammad Al Salah sweeps in from the right wing, cuts the ball through to Sadio Mane. He slots the ball home for a Liverpool goal. And the 54,074 packed into Anfield Stadium are on their feet, cheering. Deliriously happy.
It’s a scene that’s played out countless times in football stadiums in the Premier League every week. Or at English League games up and down the country — or in competitions across Europe.
But the reality is that standing at football games at the top levels is anathema in all-seater stadia. Every stadium is all-seating, standing considered unsafe — ever since the tragic events at Hillsborough on April 15, 1989. Then, hundreds were injured and 96 Liverpool fans killed in a crush caused by poor crowd management and police forcing too many fans into too small a space.
“I think it’s a stadium tragedy that should never be forgotten — And woe betide us if we ever do get beyond Hillsborough and stop learning the lessons of the inherent difficulties of crowd management,” Dr Clifford Stott, an expert on crowd psychology, tells Weekend Review.
Stott, who co-wrote Football “Hooliganism”, Policing and the War on the “English Disease” with Geoff Pearsonin 2007, is now a lecturer in psychology at Keele University in England and a global expert on crowd psychology. “Don’t forget that 96 people died at Hillsborough because they were fenced in; 96 people died at Hillsborough because of very poor crowd management decisions on behalf of [Sheffield Wednesday FC] and the police, and it has taken us decades to get to a point where we can actually talk in those terms because the immediate response — the one that was sustained for decades — was that football fans were the problem, football fans caused Hillsborough,” Stott says.
“Now we know that not to be the case because we have got over the corruption that flowed from Hillsborough and we are now in the zone where we can begin to analyse what went on with some kind of accuracy. We still have a legacy effect because there are still people who made decisions who are about to go on trial. So, it’s very difficult for people to talk in earnest about what went on for fear of jeopardising that trial and undermining the search for justice for Hillsborough campaign.”
Following the Hillsborough tragedy, standing room at football games was eliminated and football stadia turned into all-seating arenas. Now, after more than two decades of all-seating football, there’s a growing movement for the return of standing — safe standing — at games.
“We really are reaching a turning point,” Stott says. “I don’t think we’re very far at all. The reality is that everybody does stand. That’s been the case for decades. There’s a complete blindness to the fact that our stadia are no longer and rarely have been fit for purpose. The reality is that people will always stand.”
Even fans of Liverpool want to see a return of standing and back the introduction of small rail seats that allow supporters to rest upon rather than simply being seated. Almost 18,000 supporters took part in a week-long poll last year conducted by the Spirit of Shankly (SOS) supporters’ union, which has held discussions with Hillsborough families and survivors about what will always be an emotive and sensitive subject at Anfield.
Of the 17,910 people who voted, an emphatic 88.21 per cent (15,798) were in favour of rail seating being introduced in football stadiums; 902 (5.04 per cent) were against, 859 (4.8 per cent) wanted to know more on the subject and 351 (1.96 per cent) were undecided.
Stott isn’t surprised
“You think that happens when a goal goes in,” he says. “People are not sat down. They leap up. They dance around and the stadiums that are designed for all-seating purposes are really quite dangerous given the levels of standing that fans go on through every single fixture.”
Now, even Premier League administrators are considering letting fans stand in designated zones.
“We are looking to make sure we’ve got all evidence and all the data to feed into government on a review they’ve pretty much committed to holding,” Richard Scudamore, Chief Executive of the Premier League told reporters in June. “I think we will look to work with that review in order to create the position where our clubs have choice — which is a local choice based on their own stadia, their own circumstances, in order to enable them to, if they wish, to be able to offer alternatives to all-seat [stadiums].”
That government review is ongoing right now, and Stott believes that it will result in safe standing areas being introduced at the game’s highest level.
“We need to move to a situation where that reality is recognised and that we create a policy and legislative framework that allows stadiums to be built in a way that is safe for people to stand,” he says. “I think we’re very, very close.”
According to Scudamore, Premier League research has found that 70 per cent of supporters would wish to have the choice of standing at their club’s matches. He said his main concern now was that the introduction of safe standing would not mean enforced seating in other areas of the stadium.
“The one biggest fear we’ve got is that we do not want the introduction of a small standing area and there be a total enforcement of sitting elsewhere,” he said.
Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur are going one step further. They are currently reconstructing their White Hart Lane ground in north London but have announced that they are incorporating sections of seats in the 62,000-capacity stadium to be converted for safe standing if the law does indeed change in England and Wales. Donna-Maria Cullen, the club’s executive director, said research with Spurs supporters showed “overwhelming support for safe standing”, with the main reasons given being “choice and atmosphere — fans cannot sing sitting down”.
North of the border, in Scotland, different laws and rules apply. But Celtic, the most successful club in Scottish football, have converted one corner of their Celtic Park home into a safe-standing zone with rail seating.
But it’s not just standing that’s an issue, Stott says.
“Part of the problem is that we shouldn’t look at the policy and legislation of standing in isolation,” he says. “There is a whole raft of legislation that relates specifically to football fans that needs revisiting. It was knee-jerk legislation that was developed in the late 1970s and 1980s in response to a level of football disorder that is completely different to the situation now.”
He has spent decades studying the issue and working with police and security officials preparing for major football events. And he believes there’s a whole series of misunderstandings and dangers when talking talk about crowd behaviour in the context of sporting events.
“It’s really important to recognise that football, particular in the UK, isn’t particularly violent,” he says. “If we look at the arrest statistics, violent behaviours, looking at the facts and figures, the figures for criminality and arrest are very low proportionate to the number of people who go [to games].”
Stitt says football is a non-partisan environment where there are very low levels of problems, but that football provides a platform where small amounts of difficult amplify up into big media headlines.
“The notion of atmosphere is very important and it’s partly why football is the most popular spectator sport in the world,” he says. “If you compare to other sports like ice hockey, rugby or cricket, the levels of spectatorship in those sports globally is minuscule compared to football. Football is overwhelmingly the most popularly supported sport in the world — partly because its stadiums provide such vibrant atmospheres.”
And standing is part and parcel of creating that atmosphere.
“The issue revolves around identities,” he says. “It’s a way of showing support, a way in which football fans come together on the terraces. One of the common chants you’ll find of away fans is ‘Stand up if you love Arsenal’ or ‘Stand up if you love Tottenham’. It’s an expression of being together, that binds people together, that build a sense of identity — which is why a lot of people go to football. We often lose sight of that, thinking that they’re passive spectators going along simply to watch the game rather than recognising that they often go along to football to be part of a community.”
But the attitude of authorities is slowly changing and safe standing will come in two to three years, Stott says.
“We’re still living in the dark ages when it comes to legislation that still treats football fans as a public order issue rather than as genuine supporters of a sporting event,” he says.
–With inputs from agencies
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe.