Offside

'I have no nostalgia for the decaying, rain-swept open terraces of the past, but safe standing sounds worse.'

‘Oh, what an atmosphere!’ Russ Abbott once sang so memorably. It’s a pity the same cannot be said for English football grounds.

Phil Gatenby, spokesman for the UK campaign group Standing Areas For Eastlands (SAFE) (1), advocates ‘safe standing areas’, which he thinks ‘will go a long way to redress the lack of atmosphere - sadly missing in most all-seater stadiums’.

In February 2001 UK sports minister Kate Hoey asked the Football Licensing Authority (FLA) to explore whether German convertible standing technology could be adopted in the UK (2). Now, having considered the FLA report, UK culture secretary Chris Smith has ruled out a return to terracing, on the grounds that ‘it is doubtful that existing UK stadia could be converted to accommodate German practice without compromising safety standards’.

I have my own doubts about whether the UK government ever had the nerve for a showdown with the relatives of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, who vociferously oppose any return to terracing (3). But even the restoration of terraces would be unlikely to enhance the atmosphere at football matches substantially.

The safe-standing argument rests on the cod-behaviourist view that football fans fall silent as soon as they are removed from their natural habitat - the terraces. If this were true, why not take recreating the authentic terrace experience to its logical conclusion? Give fans bobble hats and wooden rattles, feed them Wagon Wheels and piss on the back of their legs: then they will sing themselves hoarse.

The reason for the muted atmosphere in football grounds is that all spontaneous expressions of passion have now been outlawed. You can’t run on to the pitch, you can’t swear, you can’t make obscene gestures - and you can’t drink alcohol within view of the pitch (presumably the merest glimpse of turf arouses our inner hooligan). Little wonder that fans are somewhat subdued these days.

The most vocal Crystal Palace fans congregate in the Holmesdale lower tier, where many prefer to stand. Solemn PA announcements telling fans that they are required to sit down are met with derision. I remember once the police tried to get fans in this area to return to their seats. No sooner had most people sat down than a chorus ‘Stand up if you love Palace’ rang out, and the entire stand was on its feet again. The collective defiance of the prohibition of ‘persistent standing’ certainly adds to the atmosphere.

But the safe-standing lobby is opposed to unauthorised standing. Adam Brown of the Independent Manchester United Supporter Association (IMUSA) warns: ‘Standing in a seating area is actually much more dangerous than in a safe-standing area. Look at the number of people who bruise their legs falling over seats when they celebrate goals.’ Maybe the scourge of bruised shins is a particular hazard at Old Trafford; I would gladly bruise my legs more often at Palace.

Phil Gatenby from SAFE does not want the seats ripped out: ‘We don’t want to see the return of huge, open terraces where thousands heaved and swayed together en masse. We are looking for small, purposely built and controlled standing areas.’ I have no nostalgia for the decaying, rain-swept open terraces of the past, but licensed standing sounds worse.

Passion is spontaneous or it is nothing. What an atmosphere? From where I’m sitting, safe-standing looks pretty contrived.

(1) SAFE (Standing Areas For Eastlands)
(2) See the safe standing debate on Guardian Unlimited
(3) See Offside column 5 January 2001

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