The families of the 96 soccer fans who died at the Hillsborough disaster have just marked 25 years since the tragedy, but now they have to face the additional pain of a “bring back standing” debate. All-seater stadia ultimately became the disaster’s legacy, but in recent years, absence of safe standing areas in soccer stadiums has become a subject for debate.
The 96 supporters who were crushed to death at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in 1989 was a national tragedy that spawned a root and branch look at the state of English soccer facilities called the Taylor Report. Once the inquiry was completed, out went the perimeter fencing that was used to combat hooliganism in the 70s and 80s and in came all-seater arenas to make the game safer and more of a theater-like spectacle. Famous terraces such as Manchester United’s Stretford End and Liverpool’s Kop were destroyed and rebuilt.
Sky TV then acquired the television rights for what was to become the Premier League [it was Division One when the Hillsborough tragedy happened] and so global interest and more money was pumped into the English game. However, the modern facilities have not been without critics. Not in terms of the safety issues, of course, but more to do with the atmosphere. All-seater stadia means fewer places, which in turn equals higher ticket prices, pricing the die-hard fan out of the game.
Despite the fact that the families of the 96 are “absolutely against” the reintroduction of standing at grounds, fan groups of clubs including Manchester United and Chelsea are putting together a case to bring back small and safe standing areas to the Premier League. Having witnessed the better atmosphere when the English sides go to countries like Germany for European ties, fans often return to England pining for a taste of the old days. Hillsborough was such a watershed event and the findings as to what really happened are so raw, it is understandable that so many are against the idea. The added pain of facing a standing debate when still trying to come to terms with the death of loved ones and the police cover ups that followed is too much for the families. Indeed, such was the criticism aimed at the Government for its role in the tragedy and the profuse apologies that followed, the establishment might consider a discussion on reintroducing standing a little ill-timed.
Football League Club Bristol City recently became the first English club to install a standing area, but it will only be used for rugby matches in the first instance until all relevant legal hurdles are cleared. It may take some time before the idea of reintroducing standing areas to English stadia is entertained, but plans are gaining momentum among some of the country’s elite clubs. For the Hillsborough Families, the added pain of facing a standing debate having just marked the 25th anniversary of the terrible tragedy may prove insensitive. However, it is just a matter of time before the voices in favor are heard and the real debate starts.
Commentary by Robert Shepherd