The Long Read: The Great Terracing Dilemma

by | Aug 31, 2018

We’re all growing older, and the past increasingly feels like a foreign country. For those of us in our forties, the world in which grew up broadly doesn’t exist any more, and much of middle-age can feel as though it’s a lengthy process of coming to terms with understanding this and maybe making a decision, whether conscious or otherwise, over whether to embrace the future or seek to behave like some sort of cultural King Canute, trying to hold back the inevitable tides of change that wash through our lives.

Football, of course, has changed as much as anything else. Thirty years ago, we were still only slowly moving away from the idea that so much as one league match on the television a week was some sort of huge novelty. The Premier League and the Champions League were still glints in the eye of a new generation of overlords with ideas of overhauling the entire game for their personal benefit. And a vast number of us – comfortably a majority – stood up to watch matches.

A large number of us still do, of course. Terraces still exist in the lower divisions and non-league football. In broad terms, however, these are minority pursuits, and even at lower levels of the game it’s not as common as it used to be and is continuing to slowly die out. York City, for example, are due to be moving into a new stadium next year. Even though the club now plies its trade in the National League North, this new stadium will be all-seater, despite the fact that such an arrangement is neither required or, in terms of the club’s supporters, even particularly wanted.

The year zero for the end of terracing at larger grounds came, of course, in 1990 with the publication of The Taylor Report into the previous year’s Hillsborough disaster. We’ll return to that particular report later on, but it’s important to understand why the terraces have remained a part of supporter culture and why the groundswell of support for their return, in the form of safe standing, continues to grow. So let’s tell the story of how we got from there to here.

It didn’t take very long after the codification of association football for the game to move towards being a business. The story of that particular tug of war is for another day, but one of its most significant side-effects was that clubs began to need to raise money in order to pay their players. Pitches became enclosed, turnstiles were installed, and those who came to watch were charged to do so. It wasn’t long, however, before facilities started to rise. Grandstands with seats for those who wished to sit were an obvious development, but what to do about the steadily rising number of people who wanted to watch?

The earliest days of the professional game were the days of sleeper terraces – steps made of crushed stone and earth secured in place with railway sleepers – and bleachers, wooden terraces built on stilts, so named because the wooden boards bleached under the sun, which provided a low-cost way of allowing thousands to watch matches at the same time. The era of bleachers in British football ended in horrific circumstances in 1902 at Ibrox Park in Glasgow. Competition to host the biannual international match between Scotland and England had become fierce in the final years of the nineteenth century, with Celtic and Rangers entering into something of an arms race to host the high profile (and high earning) match. Ibrox Park had initially been opened in 1887, but the subsequent opening of Celtic Park five years later pushed Rangers to rebuild their home just twelve years later, increasing its capacity to 75,000.

The 1899 redevelopment of Ibrox had been overseen by Archibald Leitch, a Rangers-supporting Glaswegian civil engineer who would go on to become British football’s signature stadium designer throughout the first three decades of the twentieth century, and a significant part of Leitch’s design was the West Tribune Stand, a huge wooden bleacher behind one goal that was given a capacity of 35,000 – a figure that Leitch himself was unhappy with. Rangers, however, were given the 1902 match between Scotland and England, and shortly after kick-off at this match, part of the West Tribune Stand collapsed, killing twenty-five people and injuring hundreds more. It was suggested that contractors had used cheaper, sub-standard wood to build the stand, but the effect of British football’s first spectator disaster was immediate. Bleachers were banned almost immediately after the match.

Still, though, there was no question that supporters should stand to watch matches, and two years later a now familiar name entered football’s lexicon. The name of the “Spion Kop” to describe a large terrace can first be found in relation, perhaps surprisingly, to Arsenal’s former Manor Ground home. The Battle of Spion Kop had been a hill battle during the Boer War in 1900 which led to two hundred and fifty British deaths and more than a thousand casualties, and it was adopted at Anfield in 1906. Several other grounds would also come to have parts of their ground named for this battle, but on Merseyside the name would come to take on a resonance that would become internationally famous.

Concrete terracing became de rigeur in the years after this, and the culture of the terrace grew over the subsequent years. Matches were scheduled for three o’clock kick-offs – earlier during winter months, when a lack of floodlights required this so that matches didn’t finish in the pitch black – in order to coincide with the closing times of factories. A couple of pints followed by the football became a way of life for thousands upon thousands of people over the years between the two world wars. It was uncomfortable – the stories of those who couldn’t or didn’t much want to make the journey to grounds’ somewhat rudimentary bathroom facilities relieving themselves where they stood weren’t without foundation – but it soon became a fundamental part of the lives of thousands upon thousands of people, and crowds continued to grow throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

Few, however, were prepared for the surge in crowds that followed the end of the Second World War, and another tragedy occurred at Bolton Wanderers’ Burnden Park in 1946, when thirty-three people were crushed to death during an FA Cup quarter-final between Bolton and Stoke City. A crowd of 85,000 people had turned out for this match, and closing the turnstiles twenty minutes before kick-off didn’t stop many from getting into the ground illegitimately. As pressure built up on the Railway terrace behind one goal – this was an earth terrace with only flagstones to mark out steps – two rudimentary crush barriers collapsed, causing the crowd to surge forward.

To modern eyes, the official response to the disaster was hopelessly ineffectual. It was recommended that, voluntarily, local authorities should inspect grounds with a capacity of 10,000 spectators with agreed safety limits for grounds of more than 25,000 capacity, that turnstiles should mechanically record spectator numbers, and that grounds should have internal telephone systems so that turnstiles could be closed quickly when grounds became full. The post war boom in attendances, however, turned out to be a flash in the pan and there followed a long, slow decline that would continue after 1950 for the next three and a half decades.

Over the course of the next four decades, the main target of all those charged with ensuring security within football grounds became containment. The rise of hooliganism is another tale for another time, but by the middle of the 1970s, there could be denying the scale of the problem and terraces were a part and parcel of that. Home and away supporters would, of course, congregate in specific places, and as hooliganism became increasingly informally codified, “taking their end” (ie, invading the opposition fans’ preferred area with violence and taking it over) became a popular Saturday afternoon pastime for a small but growing minority. Consequently, segregation fences started to appear on terraces in the middle of the 1970s.

It’s not unreasonable to suggest that the game rode its luck for a very long time, and when tragedy did strike, it struck elsewhere in our increasingly decrepit stadiums. In 1971, sixty-six people were crushed to death at Ibrox – again- when a railing failed on an overs-congested stairwell at the very end of a match. This led to The Safety of Sports Grounds 1975, which featured a  “designation” test required for grounds with capacities of over 10,000 people. It is notable that some clubs closed off large sections of terracing to cut costs, as one of the requirements for designation was to close any part of a ground which wasn’t properly maintained. Clubs facing plummeting attendances could easily flip that, closing down areas voluntarily and reducing unnecessarily high capacities, with no need to pay anything to maintain them. Parts of some grounds fell into a state of disrepair from which they fully recovered.

With the benefit of hindsight, the events of May 1985 had an air of inevitability about them. The disrepair into which grounds had fallen, on the one hand. The dark spectre of hooliganism and where it might lead, on the other. The air hanging over the game increasingly felt like a toxic fog, and all of these issues – and more – came to a head in two and a half horrific weeks at the very end of the 1984/85 season. On the 11th of May, fifty-six people died at Valley Parade in Bradford, victims of a a fire under circumstances – to modern eyes, at least – of a horrific dereliction of duty on the part of everybody touched by it.

They were failed by the government, for having policies that failed. By the local council, who didn’t enforce the Fire Precautions Act 1971, legislation which might have saved lives. By the football authorities, who never seemed to view football crowds as anything other than an exercise in containment and whose own safety policies can only now be considered as unfit for purpose. By the club, who surely ultimately had to take a degree of responsibility for their ground and what happened there. Every institution played its part in creating a situation in which those horrible circumstances could come to pass, and on the same day a boy died during rioting at a match between Birmingham City and Leeds United after a wall collapsed, an incident which hindsight applies as a  precursor to a further disaster to come.

Two and a half weeks later, it came – a second tragedy, at Heysel Stadium in Brussels. We can and will never know whether hooliganism led inexorably to the point of what happened on that balmy evening. All we know that is that it ended where it did. Thirty-nine people died after a wall crushed under the weight of people seeking escape from charging Liverpool supporters prior to the European Cup final, this time live on the television in front of a horrified continent. For the BBC, Barry Davies had to pick through the wreckage of the night from the commentary box, as Juventus strolled to a one-nil win after the match was played because the local authorities were concerned that cancelling it might antagonise the crowd still further.

The charge occurred on a terrace, but attention afterwards was focussed elsewhere. On hooliganism, which had ultimately exceeded the prophecy of the most pessimistic amongst is. It focused on England, a country that would become a European football pariah and be banned from European club football for five years. And it focused on the absolutely decrepit state of the stadium – much was made of the fact that fighting fans could pick up chunks of the terracing and use them as missiles –  whilst apparently disregarding its completely unsophisticated design.

Crowds plummeted to record lows over the course of the 1985/86 season, a record which still stands to this day. We’ve never completely gotten rid of hooliganism, but it did tail off somewhat from the mid 1980s on. By the start of 1989, crowds were starting to go back up, we were starting to acclimatise to the fact that European football was something that happened to other countries, up to and including Wales and Scotland. We didn’t like that, but we were correctly obliged to take it, and as the decade entered its final year felt as though, with fanzine culture starting to grow, giving fans a chance to break the spell of the knuckle-dragging stereotype which which we’d become associated, and crowds starting to creep up again, things might be about to start getting better.

But then Hillsborough happened.

It’s difficult to put into words how Hillsborough still makes supporters of a certain age and up feel, to this day. To recall it brings about a feeling of horror that fills up from the pit of the stomach. Crowds may have dropped over the years, but big crowds could occasionally happen at many clubs. From rickety little lower division grounds packed to the rafters to big matches where crowds packed tightly onto terraces looking like the swell of a wave as people were pushed down and pulled back up the concrete steps and with steel crush barriers offering only the most limited form of of separation, we’d all – well, a very large number of us – had found ourselves in circumstances uncomfortably close to those that proved lethal at Hillsborough, and it felt as though the events of that day could happened to any of us. As Nick Hornby wrote in 1991’s Fever Pitch, we all knew it was uncomfortable but assumed that there was a plan for if anything went seriously wrong. It turned out that there wasn’t.

The Taylor Report stated that standing accommodation was not intrinsically unsafe, but Taylor also recommended that all-stadia have a reduction in standing and that, after a given timescale, all stadiums designated under the Safety of Sports Ground Act 1975 should admit spectators to seated accommodation only. The government pushed on with new laws making all-seater stadia mandatory in the top two divisions very, very quickly, a move which may have been considered to have been – perhaps even subconsciously – pushing blame back to “the terraces” and “the fans” rather than facing up to the systematic failure of South Yorkshire Police on that particular day, especially when we consider that these tight new regulations were only applied to football clubs. The clubs offered no resistance to all of this, though. All-seater stadia offered the opportunity to put up prices, made the sale of advance tickets easier, and allowed clubs to repurpose themselves for, well, a whole new ball game.

So began the biggest overhaul of the game’s architecture in many, many decades, and this time terraces were going for good. The Stretford End went in 1992. The Kop went in 1994. Eventually, entire stadia would come to disappear. Highbury. Upton Park. Maine Road. Roker Park, and scores more beside. There’s been a lot of change, over this last thirty years. But if there has to be change, there can be a next phase in the supporter experience of watching the football inside the stadium. There can be safe standing, if the will is there. Part of the reason why there is opposition is that it is a relation of terracing. The Hillsborough families have come out against it and it’s right that such views should form a vital part of the convseration, but to what extent should emotional arguments determine such decisions? These are not, ultimately, black and white questions.

Critics of safe standing argue that standing encourages violence, and that seating is intrinsically safer. They argue that more families have attended matches because of the introduction of all-seater stadia, and that they are, therefore, better for diversity. All of these are heavily debatable, and of late there has been increased support for the return of standing areas. Celtic opened a safe standing area in 2016 with a capacity of 2,600, whilst Shrewsbury Town became the first Football League club to install it in part of their ground in May of this year, giving New Gay Meadow a safe standing capacity of 550. Shrewsbury were able to do this legally as a League One club that hasn’t been higher, and there have been reports of other clubs intending to introduce safe standing blocks, too. Meanwhile, in perhaps the biggest developments of all, in the summer of 2018 the Labour Party confirmed it as official policy, whilst the Football Association, the Premier League and the Football League have all now lent their support to it as well. The government’s state position to retain the law as it is feels weaker and weaker with each passing month.

And for all the disasters and the more mundane experiences of discomfort that supporters experienced on a week by week basis, terracing retains a central part of the mental culture of the game in this country, even if the number of people who can actually remember it at top flight matches is diminishing year on year. The names of the vast terraces of the past retain the power to raise the hairs on the backs of the arms of those who remember them. The Kop at Anfield. The Stretford End at Old Trafford. The North Bank and the Clock End at Highbury. The Gallowgate End at St James Park. The Holte End at Villa Park. The South Bank at Molineux. The Shed at Stamford Bridge. The Kippax at Maine Road. The list goes on and on.

And there are certain sights, sounds and smells that can remind us of those long lost days. A Proustian rush can be delivered by the cloying smell of fried onions, cigarette smoke and meat of dubious origin that delivers us all the way to those bygone times. At bigger clubs, the terraces could be a fearsome sight, an organic mass of people swaying in time with the subtle rhythm and movement of the game. At smaller clubs, meanwhile, the terraces offered something else altogether. They became a social hub for a couple of hours every Saturday afternoon, allowing supporters the freedom to walk around, change position to watch the match, and catch up with people who we might only even have seen or spoken to at that time of the week.

These two environments might have been as different from each other as chalk and cheese, but they did perform one service. They gave a sense of community to a football club, and it’s entirely possible that we miss that nowadays. It’s often said that we live in an increasingly atomised society, that our lives are increasingly frequently shrouded in a feeling of social isolation. The tip-up plastic seat gives us our spot in a football ground, a small area that belongs to us. But we’ve gained that at the cost of something of the feeling of being a part of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. At a more noticeable level, it is pretty much universally acknowledged nowadays that replacing terracing with seats had has a severely detrimental effect on the atmosphere at matches. It might be argued that, at an entirely prosaic level, going to the football simply isn’t quite as much fun as it used to be, although whether this cost is outweighed by the arguments of those that oppose safe standing remains debatable. Was football only more fun for us than it was a quarter of a century ago because we were twenty-five years younger ourselves? It’s hardly implausible.

This, of course, is the dilemma at the heart of nostalgia for terraces. They could be uncomfortable, there was an existential risk of violence, they were not as safe for some people as they were for others, and views of the match were often severely restricted. But none of these shortcomings – and to pretend that they didn’t exist is to apply rose-tinted spectacles to the past – have to be repeated in the future. And that’s rather the point of safe standing, really. It isn’t the same as the terracing of the past, and neither is it meant to be. Instead, safe standing is an attempt to provide a way of watching matches that many supporters want and build an enjoyable atmosphere at matches without compromising safety, as happened all too frequently in the past. They are successfully used in Germany, in one of Europe’s most successful domestic leagues. If German supporters can be trusted to stand for matches in a convivial atmosphere, why shouldn’t we as well?