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22 April 2024

English fans stand up for the right... to stand up

Manchester City's Sergio Aguero celebrates scoring their second goal during the English Premier League match against Liverpool at The Etihad stadium in Manchester, England on February 3, 2013. (AFP)


With a new £3-billion ($4.7 billion, 3.5 billion euros) television deal and seven teams in Deloitte's list of Europe's 20 richest clubs, business in the Premier League is booming. But not everyone is happy.

The English top flight may be the world's most popular football championship, ceaselessly driven into new territories by an unrelenting marketing machine, but some local fans long for a return to simpler pleasures.

Top of their list is a desire to stand while they watch their teams play - and a campaign spearheaded by the Football Supporters Federation (FSF) is calling for the right to do exactly that.

Irked by a blanket ban on standing at Premier League clubs, the campaigners hope to persuade the British government, football authorities and clubs to introduce standing sections on a trial basis at selected grounds.

Any such scheme would involve the use of so-called "rail seats" - robust, fold-up seats with a high back featuring a metal rail that fans sitting in the row behind can hold if they wish to stand up.

The seats are widely used in Germany and campaigners believe their introduction in England would create a safer environment for supporters who wish to watch matches on their feet.

Fans who attempt to stand during games currently run the risk of being ejected by stadium stewards.

The Safe Standing Campaign has received support from a number of clubs and organisations, including Premier League side Aston Villa, current Championship leaders Cardiff City and the Scottish Premier League.

West Ham United co-chairman David Gold gave it his backing recently as well, writing on Twitter: "We already have unsafe standing which also stops fans that want to sit from doing so. I'm in favor of safe standing."

Meanwhile, the head of campaign group the Safe Standing Roadshow, Jon Hatch, told AFP that an unnamed Premier League chief executive has told him: "I'd buy 3,000 (seats) tomorrow if I could, but I can't."

However, the campaign faces fierce opposition from the families of the Liverpool fans killed in the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy, which saw 96 supporters crushed to death on an over-crowded terrace during an FA Cup semi-final.

"There are 96 reasons why it should not be allowed," says Margaret Aspinall, chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, whose son, James, died aged 18 at the ground in Sheffield, northern England.

"Standing should never, ever come back. I do not think there is anything safe about standing. I feel insulted that while people are trying to fight for justice for Hillsborough, that this campaign is growing now."

In the 1970s and 1980s, terracing in English football was synonymous with appalling conditions and a rampant hooligan problem that saw match-attending football supporters universally treated as potential criminals.

Things reached a tragic head at Hillsborough, prompting the release of a report by leading judge Peter Taylor in 1992 that eventually led to the introduction of all-seater stadia across the English top flight.

Despite the calls for safe standing to be introduced, the game's decision-makers remain cautious.

"From a safety and security point of view, and all-round generally, I wouldn't want to take the risk," said Premier League chief executive Richard Scuadmore earlier this month.

"I understand the argument and understand it can be done, but I wouldn't want to see it."

Campaigners, however, believe the football authorities' concerns have more to do with out-dated fears about fan behaviour than with the practicalities of safe standing being introduced.

"It is clear that nobody really believes standing is unsafe, or it wouldn't be allowed at any public gatherings," says Hatch.

"So if the 'risk' is not safety-related, what is it? Is it that such people still hold the view that fans who like to stand are all thugs and hooligans, trouble waiting to happen?"

Hatch, who says that capacity controls would remain the same in safe standing areas to prevent over-crowding, believes the scheme could be rolled out in "a matter of weeks" if the authorities agree to it.

But the shadow of Hillsborough means the pro-standing brigade may have to remain seated for a little while longer.