Albion to investigate safe standing
THE answer to that headline question, of course, is two fold. No, you probably aren’t is the first part, followed by the second element – you’re supposed to be sitting down.
Those after all, are the rules, the laws of the land which were changed, in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster, to ensure that all football clubs playing in the top two divisions of the English game did so in all-seater stadia.
The unfolding catastrophe that was Hillsborough – and we’re talking here of the day itself rather than the horrors that followed in its wake – became so seared on the collective psyche of the country that in its immediate aftermath, it was all but impossible to find anyone who balked at the idea, whatever their nostalgic attention to the great banks of terracing of the past. It was blindingly apparent at the time that our crumbling stadia, then decades old, needed bringing into the modern world and that the installation of seats throughout was the way to bring safety back to the game.
But time moves on, and just as 1950s and 1960s football grounds were no longer viable in their existing state going into the 1990s, so now all-seater stadia are throwing up questions of their own, not least because they are heavily populated by supporters who don’t remember Hillsborough and the environments that created it – you have to be pushing towards 40 to have real first had recollections of it. Younger supporters who never experienced the crushes of the past perhaps don’t understand the dangers that were inherent in those times, while all of us supporters have perhaps become blasé about ground safety given the last large scale tragedy is thankfully now so distant.
While we have that luxury, it is the job of people like our Director of Operations Mark Miles to remain ever vigilant on the safety front and to assume that the next issue might be just around the corner. The irony is that safe standing might yet be the answer to a problem created by all-seater stadia. First, a little history.
If you go back into the legislation that came into being post-Hillsborough and Bradford, the 1989 Football Spectators Act said that all grounds in the top two divisions must be all-seater. From there, the situation was policed through ground regulations which state that persistent standing must not take place. Failure to enforce those ground regulations can lead to punishments including, ultimately, the revocation of a club’s safety certificate, without which it cannot open its doors to spectators.
Throughout the 1990s, the scars of Hillsborough remained vivid and, barring those moments of excitement that got the whole ground on its feet, supporters pretty much observed the new rules and understood precisely why they were in place. But as Mark explains, things have changed since then.
“Over last summer, our Safety Certificate moved from being a very draconian and prescriptive document that said you must do this, this and this, to something that is now much more risk based, based on assessments and where the onus has passed on to us as a football club to manage the risks that we have at the stadium. One of those potential risks is having people standing in seated areas.
“We do have a “problem” at The Hawthorns – as do most grounds across the country – in that there are pockets around the ground where people do persistently stand. The back of the Smethwick End is one area, the away section is another, there’s a small pocket in the Birmingham Road End too.
“What we have now is a climate where supporters are clearly standing in seated areas and the onus is on us to mange that space. We have tried - and will continue to try - lots of approaches to try to deal with that and to get people to sit down but the plain truth is that, while home supporters are happier to work with you than away fans are, on both fronts, it is hard work and people continue to stand. That is, quite simply, the reality of the situation, and so now, we are beginning to ask if there are any other ways in which we can safely manage that reality.
“While standing in seated areas isn’t inherently unsafe, it’s far from ideal and as a club, we have to recognise that there are potential risks. One is the possibility of a potential crowd collapse where there is a surge or something similar at the back and everybody dominoes forwards from the top of the stand. Clearly that is a worst case scenario, but we must accept it exists.
“In comfort terms, the only protection you have in front of you if you stand is a plastic seat which is something like 30cm above the concrete, and you can get pressure into the legs if you stand into that. Again, should you fall forward, that poses a risk of injury.
“Because you have your seat behind you too, it’s quite a limited standing area and you find as a consequence that people spread out to get more room and so then they fill the gangways. That’s a real concern if there is a crowd incident, if you need to evacuate people from the stand for any reason, and it’s also a problem if someone is taken ill and paramedics are trying to get through but find their way blocked.
“Standing does also tend to cause issues between supporters too. If you want to sit and the person in front of you is standing, that causes conflict. Those who are seated quite understandably point to the fact that those are the regulations, that it’s an all-seater stadium, but then we have a club have to manage those who do want to stand. That in turn tends to lead to conflict between supporters and stewards too.
“On all those fronts, it’s an unsatisfactory situation and one where we would like to find new ways of responding and safe standing might be that opportunity. But what we have to be clear on is what exactly safe standing means, because that debate has moved on very quickly in recent times and has gone away from what the initial premise was when some supporters were trying to promote the concept.
“We have to be very clear that no government is going to allow standing to come back into our football grounds simply because fans want it or because people feel it will create a better atmosphere, nor for reasons of nostalgia.
“However, if it could be demonstrated that in fact, it can actually create a safer environment and address the issue that, whether we like it or not, supporters want to stand, then I think government would take notice. If it could be demonstrated that safe standing makes grounds safer than they currently are, then I think it opens the doors for amending that legislation - there would have to be an amendment or a change to the Football Spectators Act 1989.
“But I have to stress, this is not a question of rolling back time and returning to the huge banks of terraces of the past. The lessons of Hillsborough were well learnt and football stadia have become immensely safer environments because of that. Nobody would countenance a development that would put at risk those advances, but equally, nor should we blind to new ideas that might make stadia safer still.
“It’s about dealing with the reality on the ground rather than some utopian idea of wouldn’t it be nice if we all sat down. A significant number of people aren’t going to do that and so we have to respond to the safety issues that generates.
“In the past, we didn’t fully appreciate the dangers perhaps. You talk to people who stood in those big crowds in the ‘70s and they’ll tell you that they had games where their feet never touched the ground, games where they started in one place in the stand and finished up 20 or 30 yards away by full-time because of the movement of the crowd. Now, potentially every row would have a barrier to make sure you remain in that row and you only come into close contact with people to your left and right, not behind or in front”.
The mechanics of safe standing are crucial to that debate and they are currently being tested north of the border where Scottish football clubs are not subject to the Football Spectators Act. As a consequence, Celtic have been able to install just under 3,000 rail seats in a section of Parkhead this season.
“As I said, because of the changes in our Safety Certificate over the summer, the onus has moved to us and I believe that the rail seating / safe standing area offers some potential for us to do that. It’s something I’m very keen to explore further, but right from the outset, supporters must understand that this is not a way of increasing capacity. Capacity will stay the same – one seat equals one standing position. It is simply a question of better managing an existing issue, giving supporters some choice and offering a section of our support the option they would like.
“Celtic installed a system in the summer that might allow us to do that, though it needs further investigation and we are going there to take a closer look at it in operation on the ground. It’s an unusual system in that every standing position has a rail in front of it at 900mm which is a big departure from what people look back at nostalgically in the ‘70s and ‘80s when there were just a few crush barriers dotted about the terrace every few rows. This is completely different and it clearly isn’t a step backwards but rather a move forward through the development of technology.
“Rail seating is very much what it says – it is literally a rail, with a built-in seat, which means the seat can drop down, or be completely upright, flush with the rail. That means that your standing area is much greater, front to back”.
As we, and other clubs explore the concept of rail seating, it is important to underline once again, that there is no desire to return to a nostalgic, sepia-tinged version of the past where we crammed people into our football grounds. This move has nothing to do with capacity and everything to do with safety as Mark is at pains to make clear.
“The safe standing debate has moved on in recent months. In the past, whenever it was spoken about, it tended to be in terms of creating a new area in the ground that would then increase capacity, and that is impossible to do. It is essential that people understand that as the debate moves forward.
“People used to look at this number of 1.3 or 1.4 people being able to stand for every one seat that was currently in place. Leaving aside any other considerations for the moment, the simple truth at The Hawthorns is that we cannot increase capacity like that in those existing stands because we physically could not allow that many extra people into those areas.
“It’s not simply about the actual watching of the game, it’s about the fact that you would need more turnstiles to cope with more people, you’d have to have more concourse space, more toilets, more catering outlets, more exit gates, bigger vomitories, bigger gangways and you physically cannot do that here, we cannot create those extra facilities within the stands that we have, you cannot do a retro-fit that works in that way.
“If you were building a brand new stand, then potentially you could do that and create greater capacity through safe standing, but that is a very different idea compared with reconfiguring existing stands, either here or at other grounds.
“Even when you compare the East Stand concourses with those in the Smethwick, stands built only six or seven years apart, you can see how requirements had moved on it that period, and now we’re another 15 years down the line.
“You simply cannot put more people into the Smethwick End or the Birmingham Road End without rebuilding the stands - full stop. Even now, we open up the exit gates in the Smethwick End at half-time because it allows people to spill out, have a bit more room in the areas behind the stand, they can smoke if they wish to and so on. Expectations nowadays are very different.
“It wouldn’t be a wholesale return to terracing and perhaps not all clubs would want to bring it in anyway. There would be sizeable investment required, bearing in mind that retaining the status quo costs nothing. That cost would have to be met by the clubs themselves, there wouldn’t be help from elsewhere as there was following the Taylor Report, because it would be a matter of choice rather than legal requirement.
“At The Hawthorns, the logical area in which to run a pilot would be the Smethwick End for both home and away fans, and it would not be the whole stand but a section of it. We want to give people choice. Not all away fans would want to stand. Not all our fans who want to go in the Smethwick End want to stand either.
“But I’m not talking about a scheme that is going to come in next week. This is months if not years away, if it happens at all – it took Celtic the best part of six years from start to finish to actually put this into operation, though I don’t think it would take that long here.
“The Premier League issued a statement last month that pointed out some clubs are for, some are against, and it remains an emotive and divisive issue, but my opinion is that some club will be allowed to run a pilot at some time in the coming years. Maybe that could be done here?
“I think the simple fact, looking up and down the country, is that people do want to stand at games and we do have to take that reality on board. There are a lot of questions to be answered on this, there is an awful lot to digest and to look at but I do think that as a game, we are starting to move down that road”.