x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

English football fans seeking a new stand from the UK government

Andy Mitten explains why there is backing for a case being made by some football clubs in the country for terraces to be reintroduced at stadiums 23 years after the Hillsborough tragedy.

Manchester City may trial terraces at Etihad Stadium if permitted to do so by the English FA. Jon Super / AP Photo
Manchester City may trial terraces at Etihad Stadium if permitted to do so by the English FA. Jon Super / AP Photo

Football's newest stadium, the 60,500 capacity Gremio Arena in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, opened two weeks ago. It is similar in design to the popular new homes of Arsenal, Galatasaray, Lille and the Sweden national team stadium, but with one notable difference – the lower tier behind one goal is a terraced area for 7,000 supporters who wish to stand.

"We stood at our old stadium and we'll stand at the new one," said Rafael Souza, 26, a lifelong fan, before last Wednesday's sell-out friendly game between friends of Zinedine Zidane and pals of Roberto Carlos.

"The terrace is where the atmosphere is, it's what makes games special. It's where we meet with friends, dance and sing. It's the first place the players come to. We don't want an all-seated stadium like they have in Europe and we're pleased our new home has a terrace."

The terrace is also the cheapest area to buy a ticket, the loudest, the most colourful. It acts as a catalyst, with noise emanating outward, even for a charity game.

Brazil is undergoing a wave of stadium construction ahead of the 2014 World Cup. Gremio were able to build their new home with a terrace because while it may be the first newly constructed in the country, it will not be used to stage Fifa World Cup games.

That honour will go to the redeveloped home of their rivals, Internacional. Fifa, the world governing body, dictate that top games must be played in all-seater stadiums, as do Uefa, the heads of the European game and the football authorities in Great Britain.

British football terraces were outlawed in the top two divisions following the Lord Justice Taylor report into the 1989 Hillsborough disaster.

Ninety-six Liverpool fans lost their lives on the overcrowded Leppings Lane terrace, where they were penned in by metal fences.

An independent inquiry at the time blamed drunk and ticketless fans for the overcrowding. Standing terraces were tarnished and scrapped as a result, yet the recent Hillsborough Independent Panel blamed South Yorkshire Police for the tragedy, not the terracing which had long been replaced.

Helped by government funding, the old, vast sweeping terraces like the 20,000 capacity South Bank at Wolverhamton Wanderers' Molineux ground, the Spion Kops at Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough and Liverpool's Anfield, the Holte End at Villa Park or the Stretford End or Kippax Street Terrace at the Manchester clubs were torn down and replaced, or saw seats planted on their shallow rakes.

Stadium capacities were slashed and admission prices increased, but it was viewed as progress within football.

It came at a price.

The Taylor Report wrote: "Clubs may well wish to charge somewhat more for seats than for standing but it should be possible to plan a price structure which suits the cheapest seats to the pockets of those presently paying to stand."

It did not happen.

Clubs were free to choose their own pricing structures and when football's popularity boomed, they applied the simple economic model of supply and demand.

Supported by changing demographics and an increasing number of middle class supporters, prices mushroomed throughout the 1990s and noughties.

It was largely the young who stopped going to games, the young who had stood on the terraces.

They once stood in the middle of the Stretford End, formerly the vocal heartland of Manchester United's support, until it was turned into a cash-generating block of executive seating for wealthy supporters after the Taylor Report.

It was no surprise that the atmosphere at Old Trafford suffered, as previously vocal supporters either stopped attending games because they felt priced out or disenfranchised, or they were scattered around the stadium.

Even taking into account cumulative inflation, prices rose by an average of 700 per cent in England's top flight between 1990 and 2010.

England's Premier League sells itself as the best in the world. It is on many counts, but when it comes to the atmosphere created inside stadiums, it is not even in the top ten.

You can watch a game with half the number of fans in Turkey, Greece, France, Italy or Holland and hear twice the noise.

English fans are characterised by their loyalty and they support their teams in great numbers, but their fan culture has been stripped down, the environment in which they watch football sanitised.

Visiting foreign fans go to Old Trafford, Etihad or Emirates Stadium and leave underwhelmed by the lack of noise.

A growing number of British fans look enviously at countries such as Germany, where fans pay a third of a price of a ticket behind the goal to their English counterparts.

German GDP is higher, yet it is far cheaper to watch top sides such as Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. The new stadiums, many of which were used for the 2006 World Cup, boast standing areas.

They are not like the crumbling terraces of old, with fans packed in like sardines, but often "rail seats" where a rail divides each row of terracing to prevent fans falling forwards. They can easily be converted to seating, though the capacity drops.

Dortmund's Signal Iduna Park all-seated capacity is 68,000, but that rises to over 80,000 when fans are allowed to stand on the vast 24,454 capacity Sud Tribune, Europe's biggest terrace and a glorious mass of singing humanity known as "The Yellow Wall".

More capacity – the rate is 1.8 per seat for a standing area – allows for cheaper standing tickets.

It is a similar story at Hamburg, who boast a terrace holding 5,500 fans in their 60,000 capacity Imtech Arena.

"Uefa sell the spectacle of atmosphere to sponsors and the people in the business seats," says Andreas Birnmeyer, a fan employed by the club to work with fellow fans, "but the atmosphere is far better when there is standing."

The German model is not without critics and a November police report said crowd trouble was increasing and that they had trouble identifying fans bringing illegal flares into standing areas.

English clubs, the Premier League and successive British governments have so far been reluctant to reintroduce standing. The Premier League considers seats to be safer and have pointed to more women and children attending matches.

The Hillsborough Family Support Group has always opposed a return to standing, too, yet a large body of fans and a small number of clubs want to spearhead the campaign to bring safe standing to English stadiums. They see fans standing at top rugby games and lower league football matches and of course, in Germany. Earlier this month, Manchester City said they are planning to trial a return to terraces, but that they need the backing of the English Football Association.

Aston Villa, supported by local Birmingham MP Roger Godsiff, and West Ham United are the two other clubs who are keen to implement plans by the Football Supporters' Federation (FSF), which has 180,000 members.

They have long campaigned for safe standing and took their idea to England's parliament earlier this month, though other clubs such as Manchester United claim Old Trafford was redesigned for seats, not standing.

Outside the top flight, Derby County, Crystal Palace, Cardiff City, Burnley, Doncaster Rovers, Peterborough United, Watford, Brentford, Bristol City, AFC Wimbledon and the Scottish Premier League support the FSF campaign.

Godsiff has submitted an early day motion to parliament which "urges the government to accept the case for introducing, on a trial basis, limited standing areas".

Fifty two MPs have so far backed his motion.

The clubs see that fans already stand in seated areas, which is technically illegal but widespread. It vexes authority, it is also more dangerous to stand in a seated area rather than an area designed for standing, but it is what the fans want and some clubs are prepared to listen.

It is not the first time the idea has been raised, but the sentiment for change grows each time. The clubs want to trial small terraced areas with ticket numbers policed.

But change must first come from the government.


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