Danny Hall Column: The Hillsborough Disaster was an undeniable tragedy. But is the time now right to make a stand about standing at football games?

Demonstration of safe-standing facilities as part of campaign to reintroduce standing areas at Bloomfield Rd. Pictured L-R  are SISA member secretary Nathan Tate, SISA Vice Spokesperson Stephen Smith and Jon Darch of the Safe Standing Roadshow.
Demonstration of safe-standing facilities as part of campaign to reintroduce standing areas at Bloomfield Rd. Pictured L-R are SISA member secretary Nathan Tate, SISA Vice Spokesperson Stephen Smith and Jon Darch of the Safe Standing Roadshow.

It is an issue that refuses to go away and, in a week when English football officially became more valuable than ever, it has rarely been more pertinent.

So, here goes: as clubs, players and agents get richer, is it time to think of the fans and address the increasingly-popular debate of safe standing at football matches in England and Wales?

The fans certainly seem to think so. After all, 96 per cent of them surveyed this week backed the idea. An even higher percentage believe modern technology in 21st century stadiums would make the concept safe.

But here is where the numbers don’t stack up. For of the same 2,364 fans, surveyed by the Welsh Conservatives and the Football Supporters Federation, just 62 per cent believe the campaign will be successful in the top two divisions of English football.

Rough maths suggests that around 2,269 of those 2,364 fans want it. But only 1,465 think it’ll happen. Why?

Standing in an all-seater ground is modern day football’s equivalent to downloading a song from the internet. It’s technically wrong [especially if is anything from the current UK ‘top ten’]. Illegal, too. But highly unlikely to get you in any bother. Because everyone does it, don’t they?

My mate did a bit of stewarding at Leeds United while he was at Uni there, paid minimum wage for three hours of work. Were he and his casual mates likely to try and eject 3,000 away fans for persistent standing? No.

Which is, for me, the pertinent point; standing goes on at most football grounds every weekend, up and down the country. From Non-League to Premier League. The FSF’s campaign merely wants to make it regulated, and make it safe. So why the objection?

As Andrew RT Davies, author of the latest report, said this week: “This campaign boils down to two issues: the right for football fans to be treated the same as other sports fans, and the opportunity to trial an advance in safety methods which is well established on the continent.

“Legislation governing standing was drafted in a different era, to address a different set of problems and it’s time for politicians to move on and give the people what they want.”

There are, of course, those who will vehemently oppose standing at football games having lived through and experienced the tragic events of April 1989 at Hillsborough.

I arrived in the world just over 15 months later but the emotion and significance of that fateful day - from the harrowing documentary and news footage, to the truly heartbreaking images in the Sheffield Star’s archives - is not lost on me. Hillsborough is minutes away from where I grew up; my uncle helped grieving, devastated Liverpool fans phone home to their mums, wives, families to let them know they weren’t one of those killed or injured.

I interviewed United’s Jose Baxter at Wembley last year, after he dedicated his FA Cup semi-final goal to the 96 victims and revealed that his dad, Andy, and uncle Ray were in the Leppings Lane end that day and managed to climb to safety. Baxter is even younger than me, but we both recognise the suffering caused by that fateful day which changed football.

It is important not to forget the sensitivities surrounding Hillsborough but, does the current - and long overdue - inquiry into the disaster not make this a germane time to debate the issue? To agree with a return for standing is not to be disrespectful to those 96 victims who, rightly, will never be forgotten or allowed to walk alone. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Liverpool, understandably, are fully supportive of all-seater stadia and that is their prerogative. But if it is deemed safe, are we above the concept of learning lessons from the past, ensuring they are never repeated and giving clubs the option to introduce standing sections if they see fit?

As Davies says, this is a different era and watching football in 2015 is vastly different to how I remember it in 2005, never mind what I imagine it was like in 1985.

The campaign is not advocating a misty-eyed, sepia-toned return to a bygone era with tens of thousands of fans swaying as one with kids hunched together at the front, keeping one eye on the pitch and one on the growing throng behind them.

Lord Justice Taylor’s report put an end to those days, paving the way for all-seater stadia and improved safety. At the time, Taylor did what he could, with what he had. But times have changed - and to not move with them is almost tantamount to admitting that we have failed to move on from those dark days of the ‘80s.

“We all understand what happened 20-odd years ago at Hillsborough,” said Nigel Clough - a man who understands a damn sight more than most, since he was playing that day, up front for Nottingham Forest, when the game was abandoned at 3.06pm.

“We didn’t understand the extent until about 5.30pm,” the now-Sheffield United manager added.

“And I think the whole country wanted Liverpool to win the re-match. In the circumstances, the game was almost secondary. I remember being so pleased that the re-match was over.”

Football paled into insignificance that day. But Clough remains a supporter of safe standing.

“Things have moved on tremendously since Hillsborough,” he said, speaking during his time as manager of Derby County,

“And the supporters deserve the choice and the option. Now, we have a system available which means fans can stand safely. The majority of fans stand in their seats anyway, which we know isn’t altogether safe, so why not give them an opportunity to stand safely?”

It is difficult not to see his point. Department for Transport figures show that the year ending June 2014 saw 24,580 killed or seriously injured (KSI) casualties in road accidents in this country. Yet there is - sensibly - no campaign to ban cars and motorcycles. Instead, the focus is on making them safer.

What’s the difference with standing at football?

Hey, football clubs; it might even improve the ‘matchday experience’ of your club’s loyal customers/fans. And with the game on the verge of the first £500,000-a-week player, surely it can be no bad thing to actually think of supporters, and what they want?

The Premier League can learn a lot from the Bundesliga and Hannover 96 is one of a number of German clubs who have installed ‘rail seats’. These sections have rails for standing, holding 5,700 fans, but can be converted into a seating area to sear 3,000 fans, for European or international fixtures.

Flogging 5,700 tickets for an area which normally holds 3,000 has obvious financial benefits, which enables Hannover to sell them cheaper. Common sense.

And the fans love it; so much so that season tickets in the rail seat area sell out before any other. Win/win.

Not everything that comes from Germany will shine in England, of course. (Mesut Özil, anyone?)

But the debate is one surely worth having. Raise the point within football circles and there will be objections; of course there will.

But often, they’re fuelled by misinformation and myth. A jury is still deliberating the cause of the Hillsborough Disaster; was it a result of standing terraces, or overcrowding and catastrophic mistakes in crowd management techniques?

Technology and policing, even society, has moved on from the 1980s.

Maybe it’s time for football to try and catch up?