Hillsborough – Standing Room

By , Posted on 13th April 2014 - Posted in: Sports And Design

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster when ninety-six Liverpool supporters were crushed to death during an FA Cup semi final in Sheffield. At ten years old Jon-Paul Gilhooley was the youngest victim. His cousin Steven Gerrard has of course gone on to play for and captain the club. Leading Liverpool to the title this season would be an amazingly fitting tribute to Jon and the other ninety-five souls.

It’s well known that a long and bitter battle was fought by the families of the victims to have the erroneous account of that day re-written and to see those most culpable for the disaster brought to account. There may have been ninety-six deaths but countless other lives were ruined in the years that followed.

liverpool-memorial

Many of the falsehoods propagated by the establishment were finally exposed by an independent panel in 2012. Presently a new inquiry is under way, hopefully marking the beginning of the end of one of British sport’s sorriest chapters. But leaving aside the rights and wrongs of what happened that day (I couldn’t do it justice here, and really it’s for another place) the disaster clearly became something of a watershed for English football.

Though it took such a dreadful catastrophe to bring about change 1989 marked the year English football woke up to the fact that hundreds of thousands of supporters were watching football each week, herded and caged into crumbling, archaic stadia, the vast majority of which had been built in a Victorian England.

Famously the Taylor Report, delivered in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, recommended that England’s top flight football stadia be converted to all-seating. This was duly done and throughout the next two decades we also witnessed the construction of brash new concrete, glass and steel grounds up and down the land as older, decrepit predecessors were demolished.

England’s emotional and surprisingly lengthy World Cup adventure in Italy in 1990 and the advent of the Premier League in 1992 accelerated the thirst for change and ensured we entered the new millennium with the game in apparent rude health. If any good had come from Hillsborough then perhaps an improvement in the match day experience for the average fan was it.

It remains a debatable point though.

standing kop

Yes, going to football matches was sometimes a grim experience twenty or thirty years back. Aside from the less than opulent stadium facilities heavy handed policing in the wake of a fierce hooligan problem meant you often took your life in your hands going to a game, particularly if you ventured out of town for an away match. You had to deal with likely overcrowding and crushing, captivity behind barbed fences, missile bombardment from home team supporters, and aggressive policing that meant you were as likely to get a wallop from a truncheon as have a coin hurled at your head by some faceless moron. No one would want to go back to that. Hillsborough stands as a reminder of what happens when fans are treated like animals and demonised by brutish unsympathetic law enforcers.

By and large changes to the match watching experience since those days have been positive then but it’s clear those gains have come at a price. A rather hefty price, if we’re talking about money. The average Joe finding himself priced out of the game is a serious issue, not least because the supply line of next generation supporters is drying up. Currently the average age of the Premier League goer inside our stadia is running at forty-one. I don’t know what it was in the old first division in 1989 but take a look at the ages of the fans who died at Hillsborough and you’d surmise it was a lot lower.

All seater stadia are expensive and have to be paid for and fewer fans than could previously be packed onto standing terraces inevitably mean higher prices. Fans are feeling increasingly alienated from their clubs by the seemingly endless financial strain that’s placed upon them. It seems to me that part of the solution to this problem would be to to take up some of the seating and allow standing areas to be re-introduced to our grounds. The terraces would be much more affordable for the younger, less well off and increased attendances would be sure to improve match day atmospheres across the board.

The argument about safety is of course well intentioned, and I know that Hillsborough family groups oppose the idea, but what happened at Hillsborough wasn’t about the inherent dangerousness of terracing as a means to watch football. It was nothing to do with that at all, and in truth on what basis are stands deemed to be safer than terracing? I’m sure the families of the victims of the Bradford City fire in 1985 would find that a staggering assertion to make. When you’re part of a crowd being entertained I don’t see how sitting is any less dangerous than standing.

Surely we can offer supporters a choice between the two? The least we owe the victims of Hillsborough is to start putting the needs of fans first and foremost. Just like Liverpool mounting a title challenge, it’s long overdue.

 The Puma

 

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