Return to standing at games an option

Rail seats are in use in the US and Europe and a return to them would not roll back British football to the hooliganism of the 80s

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 December, 2012, 3:00am

"The gladiators enter the arena, the field of praise - Saturday's weather perfect for the occasion." So opens a short documentary by the BBC news programme Panorama, made in 1964. The presenter was at Anfield to report on the sociological phenomena aka The Kop, the famous terracing where the Liverpool fans stood, swayed and sung their hearts out - all 28,000 of them.

It's a spell-binding 4:36-minute black-and-white film showing the last game of the season against Arsenal. Liverpool won 5-0 and were crowned 1963-64 First Division champions. Go to YouTube and type in "Kop Panorama". You'll never forget it. You'll be enchanted at how supporters - especially Liverpudlians - once supported their teams before football lost its innocence.

Unlike the modern game, there was no army of eagle-eyed stewards in day-glo jackets pouncing on the long list of banned behaviour, including turning the air blue in frustration at another miss or goal conceded, or at the wayward whistle of the blind referee. There was no massive police presence, CCTV, fencing, Perspex screens, chicken wire or netting.

There was no menace other than good old-fashioned sporting rivalry, adoration and banter - though the presenter notes the desire to win "is an agonising one", and there are some "adulatory, cruel and bawdy comments voiced at the opposition, southerners and police".

Half a century on, the sanctimonious naysayers claim football is entering its second dark age. Proof, if ever it was needed, was to be found at the Etihad Stadium last weekend, they cried this week. The coin-throwing cavemen, the racists and pitch invaders are signs the game has rewound to the nasty 1980s. This is somewhat hysterical and mostly untrue. The modern game has never been so gentrified, tolerant and safe. The doom merchants and puritans clearly don't understand derby games. They will always be a bitter affair - that's what sets them apart.

And football will never be a haven for sanctimony. Football is tribal by nature. You'll find only discarded burger wrappers, empty paper cups and a dropped scarf or two if you come to a stadium looking for the moral high-ground. But help is hand for those seeking yesteryear's utopia. A new campaign to revive a crucial element of what created that magical 1960s atmosphere is gathering momentum - standing up to support your team.

Calls to allow standing at Premier League and Championships games grew louder this week despite the appalling scenes in Manchester. The Football Supporters' Federation (FSF) is leading the charge for a small-scale trial of new standing technology - called rail seats - at grounds. Rail seats are robust metal seats with a high back, including a sturdy rail, that fans can hold. The seats are numbered and lock flush to the retaining wall, so creating wider clearways than along rows of normal seats. Fans in Germany, Norway, Sweden and the US stand safely in properly designed and managed standing areas, paying lower prices and generating better atmospheres.

Standing was banned after the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, but football has changed dramatically since the Taylor Report first recommended all-seated stadia in 1990 to prevent a repeat of the tragedy and stamp out the hooliganism. Many claimed the Taylor Report went too far. All-seater stadia certainly gentrified the terraces but it killed the atmosphere (those seeking a fight took it outside). Crucially, we now know it was not standing fans that caused the Hillsborough disaster.

While standing is officially banned throughout the Premier League and Championship, the reality is very different. Week in, week out, supporters at most Championship clubs continue to stand in their thousands -the defiant masses too large to be forced on to their overly expensive pieces of plastic.

Nobody wants to return to the 1980s, but the new standing technology is a safer option than the swathes of fans that choose to stand. Rail seats would help manage crowds when spectators do not listen to calls to sit down, annoying those who do.

The FSF has the backing of one Premier League club - Aston Villa - and 12 other clubs outside the top-flight plus the Scottish Premier League. Lobbying lawmakers has begun in earnest and over 50 MPs have backed a motion to debate the proposals. A meeting this week between fans, police and politicians saw an agreement that new standing technology "would be a safe area used by families, women, children and senior citizens".

The families of the Hillsborough victims were quick to condemn the campaign and last weekend's appalling scenes during the Manchester derby have in the eyes of many shown why standing should never be reintroduced. But the fan who threw a coin at Rio Ferdinand was in a seated area at the Etihad Stadium. And a top policeman, Superintendent Steven Graham of the West Midlands Police, said no link could be made between hooliganism and standing stadia. Introducing rail seating would not "roll back" British football to the hooliganism-scarred days of the 1980s, he said.

The desire to be on your feet is impossible to suppress. Ask the Reading and Arsenal fans who will be on their feet during Monday's night critical clash. Ask all those today who will be up on their toes. And since we are on our feet, we can easily spot the thugs and hound them out from the field of praise.