Safe standing areas may return the lost atmosphere to the Premier League

Safe standing areas may return the lost atmosphere to the Premier League
Wolves' supporters stand and chat prior to a game in the rail-seat section of Molineux Stadium. Picture: Nick Potts, PA

MANCHESTER UNITED have lodged a request with local authorities to introduce ‘safe standing’ to Old Trafford, that would see an all-seated corner of the stadium transformed into an area that would allow 1,500 spectators stand when they wish during the game.

This would require a 'rail-seating' system to be built into the stand allowing fans to stand during the game but held back from pushing forward by a rail in front of them that runs along the length of the terrace. Then during the break, one can sit down on the flip-up seat that’s incorporated into the rail behind you.

If United get permission from the Safety Advisory Group - a partnership between the local authority and other bodies including the police and fire service  - then they will join Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers trialling the use of the safe standing rail-seats.

Rail-seats have been in use for some time on the continent, where large sections of the stands are allocated to the sitting/standing compromise. Results of their use the Bundesliga in Germany, and by Celtic in Scotland has proved to be very popular among their fans.

The problem for such developments in England is that their top-tier stadiums have been all-seater grounds since the 1990s as a result of the Taylor Report that recommended the move away from traditional terrace stands to a full seating model as a result of the tragedy at Hillsborough where criminal negligence, inferior infrastructure, and serious overcrowding resulted in the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final.

Since then, the clubs of the two top divisions have been required to have all-seater grounds, which utterly changed the entire culture and economic outlook of the leagues.

Coinciding with the money introduced by live television coverage, the new stadiums saw a move away from the young male, working-class fan profile to a more middle-class, affluent, older and diverse spectator, resulting in improved stadium infrastructure and facilities. But, it is also argued, removed much of the atmosphere that once epitomised the English game.

A return to standing areas in stadiums is a sensitive subject in England, especially on Merseyside where the consequences of Hillsborough understandably remains raw. However, some studies indicate a move to rail-seats is indeed safer than existing seated stands and is shown to improve the experience of the fans.

Anyone who has been to a Premier League game in England will have experienced that in many parts of the grounds fans will stand-up anyway during the game. The problem with this is that low seats in front of standing fans leave them susceptible to falls, as shin-height seats are perfect for a forward momentum stumble.

Goal celebrations that see fans rush forward have proved almost as bad as the old terrace crush. The only difference being that it is more likely to be confined to the one spot on the stand rather than the terrace-wide push of old.

There is no doubt that much of the atmosphere was lost with new stadium designs as it naturally would. Seated people are less likely to sing and chant and jump around than if they were standing and many people have noted how much better the match-day atmosphere is at clubs like Borussia Dortmund and Werder Bremen, where rail-seating returned a vibrant and exciting experience to their fans.

Celtic were one of the first clubs in Scotland to introduce rail-seating at Parkhead. Picture: Getty Images
Celtic were one of the first clubs in Scotland to introduce rail-seating at Parkhead. Picture: Getty Images

With rail-seating, fans are free to stand during the game, not confined by cramped seating that interferes with chants, dance, and celebrations that are all part of the natural enjoyment of a match but does not put others in danger of a crush.

Fans consistently bemoan the loss of atmosphere on the stands, with some matches seen to be more like a night at the theatre than a football stadium, with fans sitting there waiting to be entertained rather than generating the atmosphere themselves. This often leads to dull experiences where players fail to respond to the fans and the fans fail to inspire the players. This has, in turn, seen a drop in attendances recently leading to further dull experiences at matches. A circle of decline that neither the game or the club owners want to see. Rail-seating stands would rejuvenate the atmosphere, improving the experience and may see attendances return.

One fear of a return to standing fans is that it might encourage a return of hooliganism. However, the type of attendance at Premier League games has dramatically changed in the intervening years since the 70 and 80s heyday of terrace violence. Children, families and women are now far more likely to be at matches today while stewarding and security has advanced significantly since then too. Effective policing should make safe standing no more hazardous than current facilities, even safer maybe. And this has been the case in the trials at Spurs and Wolves.

The old-style crushes on terraces were generally down to overcrowding because supporters could buy into open areas without a designated placement, unlike today, where you get a ticket and sit where you are meant to go. Similarly, with rail-seats, your place is still reserved, therefore avoiding overcrowding in any one area.

Even so, rail-seating will not be for everyone. Returning fans to a bouncing lively atmosphere, with all its associated banter and colourful language, is not ideal for families but then again, existing kops, away fan areas and 'ultra' sections are generally not family-friendly as it is. And it’s why most clubs cater for children with designated family areas already.

The rail-seating experiment looks likely to become more common across the Premier League and Championship. Of course, there is an understandable reluctance to return standing areas on Merseyside clubs. But maybe, if these experiments are shown to go well, even safe standing might return to one of the most renowned standing terraces in football history and we'd see swaying waves of fans again on The Kop.

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