Standing can never be as safe as seating

I am making a documentary about the Hillsborough disaster, and so the movement to reinstate standing under the working title of ‘safe standing’ is of interest to me. I want to make it clear that this is my personal opinion though. I have probably spent a great deal more time looking into disaster at football than the majority of supporters because the project I am working on, but this is still just my personal opinion.

Today I found myself shaking my head in disbelief as I read the news that the Scottish Football Association has agreed to re-introduce standing areas into football grounds. When this argument raises its ugly head, it always reminds me of the famous George Bernard Shaw quote “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history”.

I am old enough to remember standing at football, and I would not argue for a second that the atmosphere was far better, but I will never accept that it always safe when a large number of people want to move in a confined direction.

Before I look at the arguments for and against, I’d like to question the very phrase ‘safe standing’ that all too easily trips from the tongue these days. Who coined the phrase, and are they suitably qualified to make such a bold statement? Its name uses the Queen’s English to prematurely speak of a theory that has far from been proved in my opinion.

One of the arguments you hear from those who are in favour of safe-standing is that away fans often stand anyway. There are a few massive differences though that makes seating areas incomparable to terraces. They slow down & break up the flow of fans into and out of the stadium. Specifically:

1. If you are standing in a seated area, you have a physical barrier (the seat) between the person in front of you and behind. Crushing on terraces happens when people become too tightly compressed for whatever reason and seats, without question, stop that from happening.

2. A seated stadium means that every single person in that stadium knows where they are supposed to be. You get a stand, a block, a row and a seat number before you even arrive at the ground.

3. When leaving the stadium, the seats once again act as a funnel to direct people back along the rows they were in, before reaching the stairs. That slows the flow of people exiting the ground. It’s still not perfect but it is highly unlikely that a solid mass of people will descend a stairwell to disaster as happened at Ibrox in 1971.

Atmosphere over safety isn’t even an argument for me, so I can’t entertain it. What I can tell you about though is how I was badly crushed against a crush barrier, next to a woman in tears at a premier sporting event in the UK. There was an announcement just before the big off, which prompted hundreds of fans to start moving onto the back of an already full terrace. The lady next to me and I were pinned against a crush barrier, and it was so far into our middle that we found it really difficult to move. I looked over my shoulder and could see ten or twenty heads back that people were still coming, oblivious to the pain being experienced where I was. The scared lady in tears next to me must have felt a momentary lull in the pressure as she quickly ducked down and got under the crush barrier. I managed to get under next and I was extremely relieved not to feel the vice like pressure slowly but surely crushing me into the barrier. This wasn’t at a football match though. No teams were involved and there were no two sets of passionate, tribal supporters. I was at the Epsom Derby, in the posh bit, the Queen’s Stand. Ladies & gents dressed up to the nines, and a spot of horse racing in the sun. Since that day, I have been convinced that if I can get into bother at a relatively posh and passion free event such as the Epsom Derby then there will always be a danger at a football match it you let a large number of people walk together.

In the 1946 Burnden Park disaster, 33 people lost their lives as a gate was opened at the back of the terraces, and too many people ended up in too small a space. There were no fences between the pitch & the supporters that day, but two crush barriers collapsed and a human tidal wave ended in tragedy. After that, I’m sure standing was made safe right?

In 1971, Rangers fans were exiting the stadium with a few minutes of an old firm match remaining. They had just conceded what they thought must surely be the winning goal and decided to leave. As thousands of fans exited down Stairway 13 a huge roar went up from behind them, indicating an equaliser. The official report into the enquiry discredited those that said there was an about-turn by many fans already half-way out of the stadium because of the fans found dead on Stairway 13 were facing the same way. The official report stated that one person probably tripped on the stairs, and the sheer mass of people squashed closely together meant that it caused a domino effect, and the result was 66 people dead at a football match. No perimeter fences to blame, no late-comers either as they had already watched 88 minutes of the match. Just too many people walking together, and one trip led to disaster. Was standing made ‘safe’ after that? The official enquiry looked into what happened, and how it could be prevented in future. So now surely standing was safe and we had learnt every lesson there was to learn?

No. In 1985, after 56 people were killed in the Bradford fire Lord Justice Poppelwell investigated what had happened and recommended what football needed to learn in order to never let it happen again. He noted in his report that had the stand at Bradford had perimeter fences like so many grounds did at that time, then the death toll would have been significantly higher. Watch the fire break out on TV on this video and remember that 2,500 people were in that stand. Have we NOW learnt everything we need to know in order to keep crowds safe?

1981. Hillsborough Stadium, Sheffield. Spurs are playing Wolves in the FA Cup semi-final. Despite their larger supporter base, Spurs were housed in the smaller Leppings Lane terracing. You can see a clip of an interview from a Spurs fan who was there that day here but suffice to say there was severe overcrowding, and had the police not immediately opened the gates that led to the pitch the 30 odd serious injuries could have turned into deaths. Right, surely now enough is enough?

In the UK alone that I have mentioned above, 155 people have died at a football match. I fully accept that Bradford was not caused in any way, shape or form by the fact that fans were standing. I include that disaster only to illustrate the point that lessons were understood but not learnt. 1985 might seem a long time ago to us debating whether standing should be allowed at football grounds, but we were not exactly prehistoric then – Neil Armstrong landed on the moon 16 years previously for heaven’s sake, so why is it that we couldn’t make standing safe then?

Hillsborough wasn’t used for semi-finals after the Spurs near miss until 1987. My blog has many Leeds fans who will tell you Leppings Lane was overfull again that year, and that fans were being lifted to the West Stand above to escape the mass of people set like concrete on the Leppings Lane terracing. NOW surely we can enjoy safe standing?

1989. The Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield. 96 Liverpool supporters are killed on the site of the near miss in 1981. The death toll in the few disasters I have mentioned above is a total of 246. How many people have died at a football match due to crushing or crush related injuries since we have introduced all-seater stadia? To the best of my knowledge the answer to my rhetorical question is zero. Not one death caused by over-crowding or crushing from 1994 until 2011. In the 18 years preceding all-seater stadia, we lost 195 fans due to crush related problems. Not one since.

What makes us think now that we have all the answers and that standing can be made ‘safe’ when we failed so miserably at learning the lessons after Burnden Park, and after Ibrox and after Bradford, and after Hillsborough in 1981 and after Hillsborough in 1987 and again, fatally in 1989?

I interviewed Professor Keith Still in the making of the Hillsborough disaster documentary that I am currently working on. He has spent 20 years studying crowds. He explained to me that in a crowd, each individual lacks the perspective to make informed decisions. They can only see directly around them, and that means that the thousands in a crowd move as one, with no shared intelligence.

I know from experience that when thousands of people arrive in the same space, then the flow is not really in your hands.

I hope I am wrong, I really do, but I can see the ‘safe standing’ working in Scotland for a number of years. The clubs, stewards, fans and police will all become used to arrangements and all will be well in the world. Then, complacency will creep in. Somebody won’t do their job properly, and one day in the future we will have a serious incident again. When it happens, remember George Bernard Shaw because it doesn’t have to be this way.

Improved atmosphere at grounds would be fantastic, but not if it increases the risk of football taking even one more life.

3 thoughts on “Standing can never be as safe as seating

  1. The Hillsbrough disaster always brings out a lot of raw emotion in people and quite rightly so. What happened that day was tragic and there is no doubt that mistakes were made. The accident did not happen just because it was a terrace and it would be very naive to think it was that simple. Mike I am sure you have done some research but if you want your documentary to be credible and taken seriously then you should have an ‘open mind’ and explore the possibilities of safe standing and speak to those with the knowledge who know the facts. Any independent film maker owes it to themselves and their work to not jump to any conclusions and deliver a balance piece. Some links to get you started.

    Good luck with your project. All the best Jacko.

    1. Jacko, thanks for your note.

      My documentary will not be focussing on what the FSF call ‘safe standing’ at all, so apologies if the positioning of this blog post confused you. My documentary will focus on the real truth of the Hillsborough disaster, in order to help redress the balance against the horrendous lies told by certain people within the South Yorkshire Police at the time. Those lies still live on in many people, such was the force and weight of the press coverage supporting them, and even though they have since been proven to be lies, the families, survivors and Liverpool fans generally still have to defend the name of the 96 men, women & children who died that day.

      The reason I wrote that blog post was to highlight me views on a recent news that the SFA have given the green light to ‘safe standing’ areas in Scotland. The question of standing and Hillsborough are inextricable linked because of the Taylor Report, and so many of the people who visit my blog/ follow me on Twitter will have an opinion and so I thought it belonged on the blog for that reason alone.

      I have indeed carried out some research, and spoken to experts, and it is my view that when you allow a certain number of people to move as one, the risk of danger is vastly increased. Seating stadia have been 100% successful in stopping any crush fatalities in the UK since the early 90’s (1994?) and while I don’t doubt that standing CAN be safe if managed and planned for properly, I believe that the ugly human trait of complacency will mean that something will go wrong sooner or later. Guess what, when it does the fans will be blames, not the infrastructure of their environment.

      I spoke to whom many consider to be the world expert in crowd dynamics, and he said you have to plan for dumb people to do dumb things. Once you plan for the worst like that, then you are ready in any eventuality.

      Thanks again for your comment, and for your good wishes.

  2. Yes but the rail seating is safer than sitting. Rail seating is already in Germany. It gives you a barrier to prevent you falling forwards. This allows you to stand. However I was recently at a Highland Derby Ross County VS Inverness CT. I was in the away end and Ross County scored In injury time to go 3-2 up. Not long after, 94th minute to be precise, we scored to make it 3-3. I, without out hesitation jumped out of my seat and i in fact hurt my legs on the seat in front and nearly fell over. So it is called ‘Safe Standing’ for a reason as it i in fact safer with the new ‘Rail Seating’. This is my opinion. If you havn’t seen rail deating you should look it up. Yes the old terraces were poor and seating is far safer compare to that. But new standing is safer. Once again we all have different views.

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