Just a few years ago, the suggestion that English football grounds should reintroduce standing sections couldn’t be spoken with more than a hush and a whisper. Any challenge to the status quo of all-seater stadia would be met with rebukes about wanting to return to the less than halcyon days of English football in the 80s, which ended with the loss of 96 lives at an FA Cup semi-final.
These days it’s one of those issues that just will not go away, like ticket prices and VAR. Since Celtic introduced it at Parkhead two years ago, the consensus has now shifted to such an extent that West Bromwich Albion recently applied for permission to do the same at the Hawthorns. Sadly, the tide seems to be turning everywhere other than the UK government.
Sports Minister Tracey Crouch’s flat-out rejection of West Brom’s appeal has attracted the ire of groups such as the Football Safety Officers’ Association, who accused the government of ignoring “what may prove to be a safer alternative”, as well as that of members of the British media.
Daniel Taylor’s artful dismantling of Crouch’s position, published in The Guardian on the 29th anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster, makes a comment in particular that catches the eye: “perhaps our sports minister might reflect, Sunday being the 29th anniversary of Hillsborough, that it was always a myth that standing caused that disaster,” hitting the nail firmly on the head.
Justice for the 96
Forbidding standing on safety grounds, closing your eyes and ears to the case for safe standing in English football, shows the same complacency as ever from the British establishment towards actually understanding the causes of that disaster. Because standing wasn’t one of them.
27 years after the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans at Sheffield’s Hillsborough Stadium in 1989, an inquest finally heard that David Duckenfield, chief superintendent of South Yorkshire Police, with no experience of managing football matches at this level before the disaster, had “frozen” in the face of increasing crushing in the Leppings Lane end of the ground.
It found that wide-ranging operational failures at police level were the most significant contributing factor to the loss of life.
And, most importantly to the bereaved, it exonerated Liverpool fans of all responsibility, before delivering a verdict that 96 people had been unlawfully killed due to a police force which had failed in its duty of care towards them.
That verdict will now stand for all of time. Meanwhile, the Crown Prosecution Service is currently pursuing criminal charges against six people for their part in the tragedy. So why exactly do we continue to point the finger at standing? Why does the lie pervade after all this time? And why on earth is it still informing government policy?
The popular myth
Lord Justice Taylor’s 1990 report on the tragedy found that policing errors were indeed the main contributing factor. So far, so good. But, at the same time, it rightly criticised the South Yorkshire Police, it left just enough room for standing in football grounds to become the sacrificial goat.
Its most major provision called on then Secretary of State, Douglas Hurd, to ensure that English Football League stadia were converted to all-seater grounds by the start of the 1994/95 season.
That first official inquiry contributed inadvertently to the peddling of myths about Hillsborough that persist to this day. Ever since that infamous headline was run by the publication that dare not speak its name on Merseyside, the image of Liverpool fans as drunken louts, turning up both legless and ticketless, immune to reason and police instruction, has firmly embedded itself in the public consciousness, and crept implicitly into a governmental report.
For all its indictments on the police’s management of the match, its most forceful conclusion was this: How much easier it’d be to control the lawless masses if only they were sober and sat down.
At very best, blaming standing is to put Hillsborough down to an accident; an outcome statistically likely if enough football matches are played where fans happen to be on their feet.
At worst, it serves to absolve those who fed thousands of football fans through a single tunnel, to a single pen, to die like cattle in an abattoir; who peddled the falsehood that Liverpool fans had arrived inebriated and tested the blood of victims as young as ten for alcohol content; who denied rescue to those fighting for their lives by refusing to open an exit gate, to call for riot police instead of ambulances, to forcibly beat those dying back into the battery farm terraces they were fighting to escape.
No wonder the first official inquest returned a now-quashed verdict of accidental death in 1991.
Suspects not supporters
These days the popular myth that standing caused Hillsborough, stoked by Lord Justice Taylor’s recommendations, is widely swallowed as the antidote for actually having to think about what actually cost 96 football fans their lives.
The government’s latest rejection of standing in English football is an act of complicity in the establishment’s campaigns of misinformation that have tarnished Liverpool fans for the better part of three decades.
Tracey Crouch’s obstinate refusal to hear the case for introducing a standing section at the Hawthorns, which West Bromwich Albion argued would help to improve fan safety, might well stick in the minds of those who recall Spurs’ semi-final against Wolves at Hillsborough in 1981, where 38 fans were treated for injury due to crushing in the cages of the Leppings Lane end.
They might think back to Coventry’s victory over Leeds at the same ground in 1987, where kick-off was delayed because of overcrowding in the recently introduced pens.
Football fans’ calls for safer stadia after those matches fell on deaf ears. Now, as before, the campaign to improve fan safety by introducing rail seating might as well be crying into the wind, unheard by a governmental minister whose desire to end up on the right side of history shows only her ignorance of it.
As others have pointed out, none of Crouch’s arguments against rail seating held up to scrutiny. The claim that the campaign represented only a “vocal minority” was patently bizarre.
Worse was her naïve insistence that that, far from providing spaces for supporters to stand, stewards should force thousands around them to sit firmly on their seats for ninety minutes.
The government’s best recommendation is not to provide safer stadia, then, but for supporters to behave themselves and comply. That all sounds tragically familiar.
Sit down, shut up
Anyone who’s been to a football match since, well, ever, will be familiar with the moment that someone on their team runs through on goal.
Expecting the ball to ruffle the net, thousands suddenly rise to their feat in unison, separated from the row in front of them only by a shin-high sheet of malleable plastic. How could providing a railing to prevent supporters from falling into the row in front prove less safe than the alternative?
That’s a rhetorical question, of course, because fan safety was not at the forefront of the decision, and it never has been. The very notion that everyone would be better off if football fans stopped trying to have it all their own way sings from exact same hymn sheet of those who wrongly explained away Hillsborough as a consequence of hooliganism, inebriation and disobedience.
Sit down. Shut up. Don’t resist. That’s your duty as a football fan, just another member of the great unwashed to be controlled, managed, quelled.
For as long as you’re a suspect, not a supporter, don’t go asking those in power to help keep you safe. They’ve weren’t listening then and they’re sure as hell not about to start now.
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