THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE ECONOMIST ON NOVEMBER 24th 2016
N THE afternoon of April 15th 1989, 96 fans of Liverpool football club were killed in a human crush at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield. Their deaths were the result of a series of mistakes made in the run-up to a game by police, who directed too many supporters into the Leppings Lane end, one of the ground’s heavily-packed standing areas. This vast loss of life, the worst such incident in British sporting history, proved to be a tipping point as concerns about spectator safety escalated during the 1980s. The Hillsborough Stadium Disaster Inquiry report, overseen by Lord Justice Taylor, identified the standing terraces in which the tragedy had occurred as an underlying cause of the crush. The report recommended that by August 1994 every stadium in the top two divisions of the Football League should be seating-only, initiating one of the largest projects of stadium development in the history of the game.
Yet in spite of this “War on the Terraces”, the appetite for seat-less viewing has never entirely diminished within English football. On November 17th, after years of lobbying by fans, officials from Premier League clubs met to discuss the possibility of rebuilding standing areas within their stadiums. David Gold, the co-owner of West Ham United, said that the talks were “probably the first step” on the road to reversing Mr Taylor’s decision.
Last week’s discussions marked a long-awaited breakthrough for the Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF), a group which represents fans in England and Wales, and its “Safe Standing Campaign”. To this day, thousands of spectators choose to watch matches on their feet in Britain each week, ignoring the seats included in the cost of their tickets and club regulations that require them to sit. In 2012 an FSF survey of 4,000 supporters from 130 different clubs found that 92% of them wanted the option to stand at matches.
In keeping with their wishes, the FSF has argued for the introduction of “safe-standing” areas: modern configurations which have been designed to prevent crushes. In the past, terraces had few protective elements. The Leppings Lane end had a series of chest-high barriers, each of which were eight rows apart and therefore provided little structure, turning the crowd into a heaving mass. By contrast, “rail seating”—the most popular contemporary design (pictured above), in which seats can be folded upright to form a barricade—allows for one barrier per row, and therefore keeps the spectators carefully partitioned.
This feature has proved popular around the world. Germany is the best-known example of its implementation. Because of the legal obligation for fans to be the majority owners of German clubs, supporters successfully blocked attempts to abolish existing terraces. In fact, many clubs have augmented their standing sections after noting the popularity of Borussia Dortmund’s “Yellow Wall”, which reopened in 1997 with a capacity of 25,000. A number of countries across Europe have followed suit, while the possibility of standing sections has been floated in Australia and many are already appearing in stadiums in America and Russia. In the last year, safe standing has been brought as close as ever to the English football scene: at their first home game of the season, Glasgow’s Celtic opened their new terrace with a capacity of 2,900.
This continuing enthusiasm among fans for terraces has much to do with improving the atmosphere at games. Anybody that has been to an English football match will know that the upright onlookers tend to be the most vocal ones. It is hard to explain exactly why that is. David Sumpter, a professor of mathematics at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, has demonstrated that behaviour spreads through football crowds in the same way as among schools of fish and colonies of bacteria. Mr Sumpter, who discusses this biological model of contagion in “Soccermatics”, proposes that the bunching together of standing fans makes them more aware of their neighbours, and more likely to copy their activities—in this case, vociferous chanting.
On the old terraces, the lack of a designated spot for your ticket also made it easier for large groups of friends to cluster (and clamour) together. Likewise, some of the enduring appeal of standing has grown from nostalgia for football’s working-class roots. Sitting down will always be associated with the gentrification of the game during the 1990s, as ticket prices rocketed and the match-day experience became more akin to a night at the theatre. Hooliganism, a blight on the sport in the previous two decades, subsided. But football also became the pastime of the “prawn sandwich brigade”, a term coined in 2000 after Roy Keane, a feisty former captain of Manchester United, criticised supporters that were more interested in the light refreshments than the on-field entertainment. Standing and singing became a way for the diehard fans to distinguish themselves.
The willingness of the Premier League to consider reintroducing terraces has less to do with reminiscing, however, than with pragmatism. The FSF argues that, under government regulations about spectator density, safe-standing sections would allow 1.8 people to occupy the same space as one seated match-goer. (The Green Guide, a booklet produced by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, permits 47 standing fans per 10m2, though it does not appear to have an equivalent figure for seated onlookers.) If the FSF’s calculations are correct, then both clubs and fans would stand to gain. The teams could offer a 30% reduction on the price of standing tickets while securing a 25% increase in overall revenue; and devoted but cash-strapped supporters would have more opportunities to watch their team.
Not everyone would welcome these developments. To some families of the 96 Liverpool fans who never came home, the return of standing sections would be a horrifying step backward—and a cruel one, coming so soon after a long-delayed step forward. It was only in April of this yearthat a second inquest into the disaster of 1989 concluded that it was not the result of disorderly fans, but of dithering police, who then covered up their mistakes.
The mooted changes, therefore, must be handled delicately. Yet it is also true that they would be in keeping with the ideas of fandom held by many who died at Hillsborough. In the words of Lou Brookes, whose brother, Andrew, was killed on the terraces: “I know my brother would have hated sitting. Standing didn’t kill my brother but other factors did.”