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Published: 17 Apr 2001

STANDING AND THREATS OF CLOSURE
by Salford Lass

The debate which began with the now infamous announcement at the Arsenal game some years ago, continues to rumble on. We watch with increasing frustration as, again, heavy handed tactics are used to solve what is, after all, a simple problem. Football fans want choice. We don't all want to stand, nor do we all want to sit, we just simply want to be able to choose. With the move to all-seater stadia, that element of choice was taken away from us. At the time it was probably the right thing to do, but with the years has come increasing evidence that it is not standing itself that is dangerous and also that the technology now exists to provide and police safe standing areas for those who wish to take advantage of them.

Of course there are those who will never believe that standing can be safe. They picture the heaving terraces of the past and they will never be convinced that it can be different. They equate standing with hooliganism and find it impossible to believe that football fans can stand and get behind the team, can be noisy and rowdy and boisterous, without wanting to beat the crap out of each other or the opposition. Minds like these are set, and debate is a waste of time. Thankfully, it seems that most fans are prepared to debate this issue and listen to sensible arguments.

Unfortunately, when we move beyond the fans then sensible debate goes out the window because those who have other agendas, whether political or financial, don't play fair. One recent example was the seeming ability of a government minister to read a report on safe standing in Germany and publicly come to completely the opposite conclusions as it's authors, about the potential of English football grounds to have safe standing areas. It has become increasingly frustrating to listen to the arguments being put forward by those with the power in football, to hear them contradict themselves and sometimes just talk plain nonsense. I would respect them all more if they would just come straight out and tell us what their real agenda is, because this whole issue certainly isn't about our safety!

We are told that areas of the West Stand tier two will be closed for the possible Euro semi-final game because standing in that area of the ground is "unsafe". More than that - persistent standing is seen by the Club and Trafford Borough Council as intrinsically unsafe.

As someone who has attended football and rugby league matches, at all levels, for many years, I would argue with the view that persistent standing is, in itself, unsafe, provided that the conditions are controlled - ie areas where people stand are not overcrowded etc. Of course here we are talking about standing in an all-seater ground, but I still fail to see how standing in front of your seat is any more dangerous than jumping up and down when a goal is scored, standing for corners, standing to let the early leavers past or even standing to leave the ground at the end of the game - all activities which the club and council have said again and again, are OK. Indeed, the only accidents I have ever seen in an all-seater stadia have been when fans were celebrating a goal and when fans were leaving at the end of the game. I suppose we will be told not to jump up when we score next, but how are we to leave the ground without standing? Perhaps instead of a standing protest, we should have a sit-down protest. Once we are in our seats, we could perhaps refuse to stand up again, since it is obviously such a dangerous activity. After a couple of days it would get very messy and unpleasant I suppose, but it would get the point across wonderfully!

Trafford Borough Council seem, at the moment at least, to be concentrating on the second tier of West Stand. Ever since the Scoreboard Paddock became all seater, fans have stood up in there on Euro nights. As a fan who has spent most of the nineties in this area of the ground, I can bear witness to the red hot atmosphere of the big Euro evenings in the Scoreboard. Even when the Club was cracking down on standing at Premiership games, they left us alone at European games, presumably because they knew that the team needed the extra boost that the atmosphere gave them. I don't remember Trafford Borough Council raising the issue of safety during those years, presumably it wasn't considered a safety issue at the time. But you can't have it both ways - persistent standing can't be dangerous one minute and not dangerous the next! That defies logic. So something must have changed, to change their view.

One thing that has changed is that we now have standing in upper tiers, not just in the lower sections of the ground, and Trafford Borough Council are threatening to close the front section of East Stand Tier Two because (they say) it is unsafe to stand in those particular sections. What they seemingly fail to see is the total lack of logic in their position. If a stand is so steep that people put themselves in danger by standing up, then that stand is intrinsically unsafe and should not have a safety certificate at all. It has nothing to do with whether people persistently stand or not. If a stand is so steep that getting pushed from behind whilst standing in front of your seat could lead to you falling down on the punters below, then fans shouldn't be in there without further safety features being installed - barriers in front of each row, for example, as in the Nou Camp.

For one season my son and I had season tickets in the North Stand second tier and leaving the tier at the end of the game was a nightmare. As we came down the steep, concrete steps, it was all too obvious that someone slipping behind us could cause a chain reaction that could see bodies hurtling over the barrier at the front, that was only at waist height. When the lights failed in North Stand a couple of seasons ago, some friends of ours who sit in the same row we used to (close to the back), were some of the last fans evacuated - it took one-and-a- half hours! Imagine how disastrous that could be, with a real emergency and a crowd of panicking fans! If Trafford Borough Council really care about the safety of football fans in Old Trafford they should forget about the red herring of persistent standing and force Manchester United to sort out these real safety issues - perhaps by providing barriers in front of seats in the upper tiers and ensuring that a realistic and safe plan for the evacuation of these parts of the stadium is in place and is workable. If they can't or won't do so, then all these areas should be closed down until they do.

And if Trafford Borough Council honestly believe that fans persistently standing is unsafe, then why only choose a Euro game? Surely they should be closing the stand, or areas of the stand for all games, just in case fans stand? It is too late afterwards, when half of the second tier have landed in the laps of those in West Lower! But if they did that for Premiership games then MUFC plc might get sued by those whose seats are not available to them - for the Euro games that can't happen because these people can be accommodated elsewhere. I think the word I am searching for here is hypocrisy!

As someone who has grown cynical over the years about the motives of both the money men and politicians, I wonder just what is on the agenda here. A little more social engineering perhaps? It doesn't take a genius to chart the movement of the "troublesome" fans from the Scoreboard up into the second tier of West Stand and now out of the stadium altogether. And recent developments re away allocations have led some to believe that United fans are being used to bring all fans to heel, that we are simply part of a Premier League/government campaign to complete the change from active supporter to gullible, Megastore bag-carrying spectator. Or is it simply about money? About getting as many paying customers into the ground as possible?

Whatever the agenda, this closing of areas of the ground will not improve safety. The upper tiers will remain as unsafe as ever, but I suppose it will be safer to sit in the lower tier as you won't be as likely to have fat lads from the front rows landing in your lap! Indeed it could actually make the situation worse because it will harden attitudes and increase defiance in areas of the ground that are already, in themselves, unsafe. It will put fan against fan as those who don't stand, nonetheless find their seats "closed" to them and blame those that do.

There is only one solution to this problem and that is the provision of choice to football fans through the introduction of safe standing areas. This can only be achieved if the fans, the Club and the Council work together to put pressure on the only people who have the power to make these decisions - the Government. This cannot happen until the Club and Council stop hiding behind the red herring of standing and take fans' safety and well-being seriously. Whether we get safe standing areas or not, the steep upper tiers of modern football stands must be made safe. I am convinced that if the fans who stand persistently believe that the Club and the Council are seriously behind them in the fight to get safe standing areas, and that if they feel that they were being treated with respect - listened to and taken account of, and their well-being promoted - rather than with hypocrisy and subterfuge, that this problem would evaporate.

Copyright 2001 by Salford Lass & Red Eleven. All rights reserved.
Not to be reproduced without permission of the author


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