Monday, 28 March 2011

Why standing wasn't to blame for Hillsborough

Last week the Football Supporters' Federation re-opened the debate about terracing by launching a petition for the re-introduction of safe standing areas at grounds in England and Wales. This was met with both huge support (some 5,000 signatures on the first day) as well as criticism.

In response, for example, Telegraph journalist Henry Winter tweeted: "Surprised that heavyweight politicians floating possibility of a return to standing. Naïve. Not going to happen. Read the Taylor Report". Now, it's hard to articulate yourself fully in 140 characters, but I think Winter's implication is clear: Standing can't be reintroduced, because The Taylor Report said it was bad.

However, a full and proper reading of that report shows that isn't the case. Indeed, Lord Taylor acknowledged both that: "standing accommodation is not intrinsically unsafe" and that there are many sports were "viewing from standing areas is an essential element."

If anything, The Taylor Report was a rejection and implicit condemnation of the imposition on football of two themes of political discourse espoused by the Thatcher Government. The first surrounded neo-conservative law and order policies which saw criminality (or perceived criminality) as a problem that had to be contained, as opposed to a symptom of wider socio-economic ills. The second was the free market economic principles which place greater value on the pursuit of profit than the safety of paying customers.

Hooliganism played no part in the tragic events at Hillsborough, but the disaster happened at a time when violence was still very much part of the match-day experience. Some, not unjustifiably, complain there is less atmosphere in grounds these days but it can't be denied that along with it have disappeared the less palatable features of terrace culture, namely excessive drunkenness and masculinity as well as the tribal solidarity which bound supporters of one team together in an aggressive stance towards opposition fans.

In response, most clubs devolved crowd control to police, who dealt with it as a law and order issue, regarding every fan as a potential hooligan. Coupled with the political belief in containment as a solution, away fans were frog-marched under police escort between train stations and stadia and terraces at the majority of League grounds were turned into 'pens' or 'cages'. Lord Taylor recognised the role fencing had on the disaster and called for its removal. In fact he devoted at least as much space to the issue of fencing as to the issue of standing/seating. Henry Winter, please take note.

Of course, terracing, even fencing, would not necessarily have been a fatal issue had they been managed correctly. However, by the late-Eighties Thatcher's laissez faire economic policies were running rampant and the level of customer and worker safety was often determined by cost.

This meant the decade was scarred by a series of disasters caused by the breakdown in the provision of safety. Not only was there Hillsborough but four years earlier 57 people died in the fire at Bradford’s Valley Parade ground and 55 people died when a British Airways plane caught fire at Manchester Airport. In 1987 the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise claimed 188 deaths and the Kings Cross fire claimed 31.

A year later, 167 workers died in the Piper Alpha oil rig explosion; and 35 people died in the Clapham Junction rail crash. The inquiries into all these tragedies revealed common themes of a disregard for safety coupled with inadequate preparation for dealing with such events.

Lord Taylor recognised and condemned a similarly lax attitude towards safety at stadia, saying the was repeatedly met by the "chilling" refrain: "Hillsborough was horrible - but it couldn't happen here" before himself pointing out the ground was regarded as one of the best at the time and that near-misses had occurred around the country on numerous occasions.

Listening to the likes of Winter, you could be forgiven for thinking the Taylor Report was all about seating v terracing. Far from it; of the 76 recommendations Lord Taylor made, only four focused on seating with the rest focusing on other aspects of crowd management and stadium design.

Taylor ignored the Thatcher Government's political sensibilities and in pushing for the removal of fencing argued it "would signal the advent of a new future for football and especially a new attitude from the authorities to the spectators".

The Taylor Report also rejected Thatcher's moves to introduce a membership scheme as a means of dealing with hooliganism; called for a reduction in police presence at stadia and strongly denounced the squalid conditions football fans had endured at grounds.

If anything, Taylor's insistence on all-seater stadia, which he suggested would reduce violence among fans, was a sop he recognised he needed to give to the Government to ensure the general modernisation of grounds and the removal of perimeter fencing - which arguably had greater impact at Hillsborough than the terracing itself. Let's be frank: No fences, no crush.

Could standing be safely re-introduced today? I would suggest it could. Others have rightly argued that large sections of supporters stand anyway and that in Germany clubs switch between standing and seating for domestic and European games. More to the point the match day atmosphere is unrecognisable from that of the Eighties. For various reasons, not least the recommendations of the Taylor report, many of the factors that made terracing so unsafe have disappeared.

However, it seems that today's football administrators are just as deaf to the wishes of the fans as their predecessors. It's far easier for them to hide behind a misinterpretation of the Taylor Report (wilful or otherwise) than it is to have a proper, open-minded debate that might lead to a change that incurs a cost.

Whatever the outcome of the FSF's campaign, make no mistake – terracing did not lead to the deaths of 96 Liverpool supporters at Hillsborough; the real killer was the football industry's ineptitude and a lack of concern for its fans.

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1 comment:

Ash said...

Wow, really well written article and I have to say I agree with what you say. People are too blinkered into thinking that standing was removed just because of Hillsborough for example, maybe understandably, Kenny Dalglish in his Daily Mail article the other day. I think it would be worthwhile giving the Taylor Report a thorough read some time.

I wrote a post myself the other day about how I think standing should be re-introduced. Have a read if you get time.