Hillsborough is undeniably one of the greatest footballing tragedies to ever occur. 96 individuals lost their lives and are finally starting to see justice for that. David Duckenfield, the officer in charge of policing the match was charged with 95 counts of manslaughter. Norman Bettison, Donald Denton, Graham Mackrell, Peter Metcalf and Alan Foster were all charged with various offences in addition to Duckenfield. Aidan Semple covers it more in depth here.
With the Hillsborough disaster came the fall of terraced stadiums, general admission standing was a thing of the past. Significant redevelopments to all major stadiums and slowly to minor stadiums lead England down the path of exclusively seated stands. Since then the English game has become modernized and sanitised to the point where the lack of atmosphere is being questioned. Crowds are aging with the increased cost of a match day ticket. Young fans struggle to afford tickets and the decibel levels fall as voices go missing from empty seats at grounds like The Etihad. England has an atmosphere problem.
Hillsborough and The Safe Standing Revolution
Germany, another country with their fair share of footballing tragedy, is thriving. Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion is world renowned for its raucous atmosphere. The Allianz Arena is both a mega stadium and a wall of sound. Despite teams being so financially adrift that Bayern Munich was bailing out its competitors only 13 years ago, low ticket prices and full stadiums see the Bundesliga at the height of its appeal.
Although many factors are at play such as younger crowds, exorbitantly cheaper tickets, less of a “tourist” culture, etc. Safe Standing has had a significant impact on German crowds. Safe standing can be implemented in a variety of ways, but most commonly as rail seating. Rail seats are a waist height rail that runs along each row, stopping any forward rush, with folding seats attached. Each seat is still allocated the same amount of space as a regular seat, but is folded up for the course of the match. For European ties that require seating, they can be folded down.
Almost half of the Bundesliga uses rail seating. However clubs like Dortmund and Schalke use bolt on seats in certain areas. The seats are bolted onto steps of a conventional terrace to adapt to all seater requirements. There are options for Premier League clubs. Whether it be rail seating or otherwise, the idea is starting to come around in England.
Safe Standing Around The World
The Bundesliga is not the only league to adopt safe standing. Celtic added 2600 rail seats to the corner of their stadium this season. Standing room is still a sensitive topic. The project met some resistance from the Hillsborough Support Group, but has been a resounding success. A small trial area, Celtic Park has been the practice run for the rest of Britain. While the club plans to expand the area in the future, the benefits seem to be immense for now. Greater match involvement, a lot more noise, a better matchday experience.
Several Premier League clubs have already spoken out in favour of any eventual trial run, including West Bromwich Albion and Manchester City. Shrewsbury Town have already applied to install rail seats, the first English team to do so. Outside of Europe, Major League Soccer teams San Jose Earthquakes and Orlando City SC both have safe standing areas. San Jose’s has provided one of the most engaged crowds despite a poor on field product. Orlando enjoying newfound success have seen raucous crowds all year. Orlando’s stand was built as steep as possible with a low roof to trap sound. It is being done all around the world, with great success.
A Cautionary Tale
The Daily Mail’s Jeff Powell is fervently against safe standing, stating “There is no such thing as safe standing”. His opposition to the Premier League’s decision to look at safe standing so soon after the announcement of charges being levelled (if at all) is noted. And his argument is a legitimate one. Yes these seats have been designed against the forward crushing movement that can be so devastating. But why take the risk? He evokes images of the horrors of Hillsborough, stating that all seaters have been good for the game. However, the design and implementation has come a long way.
Rail seats almost entirely eliminate the forward rush of supporters (lest you have any hurdle jumpers in the crowd), while ensuring apt spacing between fans. He mentions a sideways rush of supporters, which seems an entirely unlikely movement from fans but is equally likely in any of the supporters sections across the country where everyone is standing now anyway. Hillsborough should be a cautionary tale, and it is. Smaller trial runs to ensure that rail seats are used appropriately will be thorough and complete before any broader scale implementation.
The sterilization of modern English football is something that is talked and complained about weekly. Through rising ticket prices and quieter crowds, the matchday experience is not what it used to be. Safe standing can go a long way to remedying that. Taking into account the caution of Hillsborough and appropriate trial runs, it will not be long before rail seats are being introduced on a wider scale.