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21 February 2014

Why it’s time for football clubs to reintroduce standing areas

The introduction of "safe-standing" at Premiership football grounds would allow clubs to reduce ticket prices and prove that clubs are prepared to listen to their fans.

By David Skelton

The Fullwell End at Roker Park was where I first learned to love football. The football wasn’t great – despite glimmers of brilliance from the likes of Marco Gabbiadini, Sunderland spent most of their time before they left for the Stadium of Light in 1997 battling for survival in one division or another. I started watching Sunderland in our first, and thankfully only, season in the old third division and on the last game at Roker Park they were relegated from the Premiership. The bitter wind blowing in from the seafront made Roker Park one of the coldest sporting arenas of them all.

But the Fullwell End and Roker Park had an atmosphere all of its own. Sunderland players and fans spoke with pride and opposing fans spoke with trepidation about the famous “Roker Roar”. When Sunderland moved on from Roker Park with a 3-0 win over Everton, I saw tears in the eyes of very tough men. There are no terraces at the Stadium of Light, nor are there terraces at any other Premier League ground. The reaction to Lord Justice Taylor’s report following the Hillsborough disaster signalled the end of standing in Premiership footballing grounds, with the famous old terraces being replaced by all-seater stadia.

Something was lost when we left Roker Park, with its history going back to 1897. And something was lost when football turned its back on the terraces. The atmosphere at some Premiership grounds borders on the sterile (obviously not when Sunderland are playing), with the shift away from any standing areas being a big cause in the changing atmosphere at football matches. All seater grounds are more expensive – as Crystal Palace fans pointed out recently, the cost of a ticket for away fans at Chelsea represents nine hours work for somebody paid the minimum wage. Since standing areas can accommodate a higher density of supporters, clubs will also be able to decrease ticket prices for hard-pressed fans.

As football has become increasingly corporatised and distant from its working class roots, fans have been left feeling disengaged from their clubs and their sport, with attendances falling in recent years. The issue of standing at football grounds is an area in which fans have expressed their views overwhelmingly and the clubs should show that they’re prepared to listen. Polls have shown that up to 90 per cent of football supporters support a return to standing at football grounds. It’s fans who turn up in the rain, wind and snow to make football the force it is today and the fans’ voice on this (and on many other issues) should be listened to. Football is a social game that is deeply rooted in communities and standing allows families and groups of friends to enjoy matches together without advance planning or dealing with seating charts.

The argument for allowing so-called “safe-standing” at Premiership football grounds is overwhelming. Safe-standing isn’t the same as old style terraces, but allows stands to be easily converted from seating to standing areas and back again at little cost. German grounds have safe-standing areas and we should be learning from their example. We were told that a move to all-seater stadia would help us win the bid to host the World Cup, only for Germany, with its standing areas to trump our bid and win the right to host the 2006 tournament.

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Safe-standing is one example where German clubs are much more in touch with their fans than English clubs. A standing season ticket at Bayern Munich, the best team in Europe, cost £104. An Arsenal season ticket costs around ten times that. Bayern’s President, Uli Hoeness, said, “we do not think the fans are like cows, who you milk. Football has got to be for everybody.”

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Opponents of safe-standing often point towards the example of Hillsborough to argue that there should be no return to standing. And they’re right that we should do all that we can to make sure that there is never any repeat of that darkest day for British football. But even the Taylor Report suggested that Hillsborough was caused by poor policing, overcrowding and the disgraceful fences that were used to keep fans virtually caged. There’s no evidence that safe-standing is anything other than entirely safe.

It’s now 20 years since football grounds in the top division had to become all-seater. And, contrary to the predictions of football club chairmen and politicians at the time, many fans haven’t grown to love not standing at matches. Fans want to see a return to standing at football grounds and it’s clear that a return to standing wouldn’t pose any safety risks. Reintroducing standing areas would show that football clubs actually care about what fans think and there’s no reason for government to stand in the way of Premiership clubs who want to listen to their fans.