Friday, April 01, 2011

Can standing ever return to Premier League grounds?

The Football Supporters Federation – one of the largest representatives of football fans in the UK – recently launched a campaign which, should it be successful, would see legislation change so that safe standing areas would be allowed in the top two divisions of English football. 

Many supporters who attended game prior to the banning of the old-style standing terraces have often claimed that the new all-seated stadia have a detrimental impact upon the atmosphere at English stadiums. 

The FSF state on their website that: “Every week, thousands of people stand in front of their seats for the duration of the game. Attempts to remove this practice have largely failed.

“As a result, many who would like to sit down find their view blocked and are forced to stand. The FSF campaign for Safe Standing is as much about protecting the freedoms of those who wish to sit as those who wish to stand.”

This has been a key issue at many English grounds, especially in the Premier League, since the introduction of mandatory all-seater stadiums in the early 90's. At Anfield fans on the Kop often stand throughout the game, especially during European and Cup games when the whole 12,000 capacity of the stand can be on their feet. 

Away supporters often do the same, with the large travelling supports of clubs such as Liverpool, Spurs and Manchester United often standing throughout the game, which causes problems for those supporters who want to sit and the authorities which are required to control them. 

There are other arguments which support safe standing. In European countries where standing is allowed ticket prices are often cheaper than those in the Premier League whilst having an all-standing area of a stadium may attract more supporters looking to enjoy the potentially improved atmosphere. 

All of these reasons suggest safe standing at English football would be a step in the right direction, helping both supporters who want to stand and sit and the authorities who have to regulate crowds at football matches based on government legislation. 

However for the survivors of the Hillsborough disaster, and the families of the 96, the memories of that fateful day are still fresh, with many seeing the FSF proposal as an insult at a time when they are still fighting for justice for those that were lost. 

Margret Aspinall, chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group stated: "The Hillsborough Family Support Group are totally against any form of standing whatsoever. We are absolutely against it and always will be.

"Our football clubs should remain all-seater stadiums.

"People always say they have standing areas in Germany but we don't play any part over what happens in that country - we just believe there's no such thing as safe standing in this country.

"We will not be encouraging the Government to change the law."

The stance of Aspinall and the others at the HFSG is one which is mirrored by the Premier League, who released this statement on the issue:  "Our view is that the benefits of all-seater stadia far outweigh the return of standing areas. They have led to more women and more children attending the games and no matter how safe standing can be made, seating is always safer."

Whether all-seated stadia are safer, as suggested by the Premier League, has been questioned by many, with various reports suggesting that the continual standing at football is safer than in seated stadiums when supporters quickly rise for attacking moves, corners and goals. 

However even if the government were to amend legislation to allow for safe standing in top flight stadiums it is unlikely it would lead to many, if any, Premier League clubs adopting such a system at their grounds. 

As suggested by the Premier League the introduction of all-seated stadia has led to an influx of families at top flight games – a lucrative market for the clubs who will receive considerably more in match day revenue from such groups than they would from, for example, a season ticket holder. 

Many clubs, such as Arsenal and Manchester City, have only recently moved in to new stadiums, where they would have no incentive to deconstruct areas of the stadium whilst in older grounds, such as Anfield, a perfectly usable seating system is already in place, again offering little incentive for the clubs to change. 

Even in new stadiums there is little reasoning behind clubs building safe-standing areas. Fans, as in Germany, would expect cheaper tickets for such areas, but clubs would not want to offer lower pricing when a seated area could bring in more revenues. In Germany the system works well as clubs are at least partly owned by fans, in England the focus on financial performance will ultimately drive clubs away from safe-standing. 

There are compelling arguments for the return of standing, in the modern-day safe form, in England’s top flight. It can significantly improve the atmosphere inside a stadium, as anyone who has been to many of Germany’s larger venues, such as Dortmund’s stadium, will testify. 

It brings back nostalgic memories of the football of old, when the fans that came through the turnstiles were of the upmost importance to the club they supported. 

But now clubs think globally rather than locally and the new breed of match-going fans, including the lucrative family market, are prioritised by the majority of clubs and for that reason, even if safe-standing does become legal, it is unlikely any top flight clubs will jump on the bandwagon. 

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