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.