There are, perhaps, two debates that should be had when it comes to the issue of the reintroduction of safe standing (or, for those of us of a certain persuasion, terracing). Firstly, there is the question of whether the choice of whether to stand or not should be a matter for law or not, and secondly whether it will make the slightest bit of difference to the game in this country. The answer to both questions is almost certainly “no”, and this is the important issue at the heart of the safe standing debate. Whilst the principle of safe standing is clear, it still feels as if seeing terracing return at the biggest clubs will remain little more than a pipe dream.
That it should not be a matter of law whether football clubs allow supporters to watch matches to stand should they wish to and should it be done with safety in mind should be obvious. The decision to legislate for all-seater stadia was a product of its time. The Taylor Report didn’t blame the Hillsborough disaster on the fact that the events that led to the death of ninety-six people were standing on a terrace, but this was enough to start pushing English grounds towards a culture of being all-seater. The chief architects of the Hillsborough were the dithering South Yorkshire police and the fences that surrounded almost all football pitches at the time. Yet by 1994, the terraces were all but gone in the top two divisions.
There was – and remains – a feeling of arbitrariness about it all, best exemplified by the situation in which Scunthorpe United find themselves at the end of this season. Why is the dividing line for terracing between the Championship and League One? If terracing is so dangerous, why isn’t it outlawed altogether? These remain valid questions, and they are questions that neither the authorities or the government can successfully answer. The Premier League’s representative, Bill Bush, has argued that seating has encouraged more families, women and ethnic minorities to matches, but this line of argument works to two fallacies: firstly, that seating would somehow not be available at all, and secondly that bring terraces back would automatically take the game back to the 1980s.
The truth of the matter is that making grounds all-seater has suited the clubs very nicely. It would be difficult to argue that ticket prices would be as expensive as they currently are had terracing remained in some form or other, and the only direct comparison that we can draw is with Germany, where the idea of making all-seater stadia was discussed in 1994, before being rejected. The average price for a ticket in the Bundesliga last season was €21.89 (just over £19) and, perhaps unsurprisingly in view of this, the average crowd in the league were the highest for any football league in the world – just short of 42,000. In addition to this, some of the terraces – most notably The Yellow Wall at Borussia Dortmund – are massive; as big as anything seen in England pre-Hillsborough.
It is not necessary to be a conspiracy theorist to form the opinion that clubs and the Premier League & Football League will be very happy to keep milking the cash cow of high prices, and this leads us onto the second question that we opened with: whether it will make the slightest bit of difference to the game in this country. The bill proposed by Don Foster doesn’t seek to force clubs to introduce terracing, so the answer to this is probably “no” as well. If clubs wish to stay all-seater (and it seems likely that a very high number of them will), they will be able to. If smaller clubs like Scunthorpe United, on the other hand, wish to keep their terracing in place for the benefit of supporters who want their club to keep it, then they can as well. It is, surely, a matter of choice, especially when we consider that not even Foster’s opponents seriously argue that standing to watch matches is inherently unsafe.
It seems unlikely that the introduction of terracing areas in English football would lead to £19 average ticket prices in the Premier League. Most big grounds, having been redeveloped to become all-seater, would probably stay exactly as they are as they would be ill-equipped to be easily converted back accommodate terracing. This doesn’t mean that the law shouldn’t be changed to give clubs (and, by extension, supporters) the choice. It seems ironic to see an organisation as nakedly neo-liberal as the Premier League railing against choice, but perhaps that in itself is a telling observation. The Premier League only seems interested in the bits and pieces of capitalist economic theory that benefit it directly, and they’re set with a captive consumer base and, in the form of Hugh Robertson, the Sports Minister, a tame government on this matter, at least.
They should, however, remain aware of a ticking time bomb. Where will the next generation of football supporters come from? It’s no good offering “Kids For A Quid” deals if those kids are suddenly priced out as soon as they reach sixteen or eighteen. Anybody that goes to Premier League matches with any degree of regularity will be able to attest to the fact that most of the faces at grounds are the same as they ever were, only getting a little older and saggier with the passage of time. Football crowds are getting older, and whether the game will be able to reconcile this and entice back a lost generation, whether that is necessary in ten, twenty of thirty years time, is anybody’s guess. Safe terracing, might give them a better chance to do so, but why think laterally while that goose is still laying golden eggs. After all, that’s going to happen forever, isn’t it…?
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