There are, in all likelihood, three years until the next General Election in this country, but that doesn’t mean that the electioneering hasn’t started already. There was a time in this country, of course, when we football supporters were pariahs, deemed worthy of David Evans lamentable and deplorable membership scheme, and blamed for Hillsborough and the Bradford Fire, even though both of these tragedies were, at best, horrible accidents, and, more likely, the result of massive institutional failings. Nowadays, though, we’re all middle class, and our votes are as good as anybody else’s. Most opinion polls are indicating that it might just be too close to call – the battle might just be on for the hearts and souls of Britain’s millions of football supporters.
After Hillsborough, of course, Lord Justice Taylor’s report into the safety of British football stadia provided the blueprint for what would become the Premiership, and one of the furthest reaching of his findings was that all stadia in the top two divisions of English football should be all-seater. The days of the terraces were numbered. The clubs, in spite of the massive cost, wasted no time. For the first couple of season, the stadia of the Premiership looked like building sites, as clubs tore down their ancient terraces and replaced them with glistening steel stands, filled with row after row of shiny, plastic bucket seats. The cost was astronomical and, with wages also going through the new, shiny roof, ticket prices rose accordingly. Supporters, shell-shocked by the Hillsborough disaster, didn’t complain too much.
Now, in 2007, football is a very different spectacle to what it was twenty years ago. We’re all consumers nowadays, largely passive and, I rather suspect, somewhat poorer than we ever used to be. But with this gentrificiation comes respect. We’re Middle England now. And so it has come to pass that David Cameron has announced that any future Conservative government would look very closely at re-introducing safe standing areas to the top two divisions of English football. On the one hand, this is pretty blatant electioneering, isn’t it? A cheap vote-winner. Have a couple of meetings with the Premiership clubs, replace a few seats with terraces, and everybody’s happy, right? Well, erm… possibly, yes.
There are a large number of people that want to stand at football matches. At any Premiership matches, you’ll see stewards running up and down the stair wells, telling people off for standing up. Why not give them the choice? It’s probably too much to hope that prices will come down accordingly, and for two obvious reasons: firstly, the clubs will presumably have to bear the cost of any conversions themselves. Secondly, the concept of safe standing means that they won’t be able to pack them in like sardines in the old days. There’s also the small matter of the fact that these areas are likely to be in very high demand. Clubs may even be able to charge a premium for them.
Undoubtedly, there will be some that regard this idea as a retrograde step. However, there are precedents in Europe for this. In Germany, the terraces have never gone away. The probable template for easily convertible safe standing areas (because UEFA rules state, and will continue to state, that all stadia have to remain all-seater) is the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund, where the 25,000 Sudtribune is the largest free-standing stand in European football. It’s also a terrace, which can be converted to seating in just two days. We have, as they say, the technology.
So, do we approve? Well, I guess that the answer is a tentative “yes”. Supporters deserve a choice, smaller clubs can renovate areas and lower their prices if they want, the bigger clubs can, if their fans are stupid enough, charge a premium, and it may even increase the moribund atmosphere at some Premiership grounds. There is no doubt that another Hillsborough simply would not occur in a modern, safe standing area. It’s what Lord Justice Taylor should have recommended in the early 1990s.
It wouldn’t make me vote for the damn Tories, though.