As the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough rapidly approaches, one of the most important and deeply significant recommendations which emerged after the Inquiry into the disaster appears to be ripe for over-turning. Lord Justice Taylor’s insistence in 1990 that all the stadia in the top two divisions of English football become all-seater within four years (with the rest to follow subsequently) appears to be losing its force.
As a Liverpool fan, I was at the Hillsborough game; as a writer and broadcaster I had to respond; as the then Chairman of the Football Supporters Association (FSA), I had to appear numerous times in the media, and lead the representation of the generality of football fans at the Taylor Inquiry, as well as writing a substantial Report to the Inquiry (much of which was adopted wholesale into the first two chapters of Lord Taylor’s own Final Report).
In short, I was there when it happened and was involved subsequently on a daily basis for many months which turned into years. There were over 350 separate Recommendations that Taylor made, and you could hardly fault any of them…. except one. For me, the all-seater requirement signalled a profound misunderstanding of what happened on that fateful day.
With the Pools money via the Football Trust and a few hundred million quid from the tax-payers to help (via a 2.5% reduction on the Pools tax levy), the physical geography of the British football landscape was radically altered – and much of it needed to be, god knows.
But there was never any serious discussion about building-in safe standing areas in the process of renovation. The Govt didn’t want it; neither did the Police; and the clubs saw it as another way to charge the public higher prices to sit in seats which the public had already helped pay for. Only the fans objected.
Lord Justice Taylor was a very wise man; he saw through the Police ‘defence’ and nailed them in his Report (though they subsequently escaped justice until most recently). But he also revealed an almost touching naivety in his expectation that football clubs would retain cheap, accessible (seated) areas for the traditional, working class folk who had sustained the game for the previous hundred years.
Instead – despite all the new riches the birth of the Premier League would bring them – the clubs have screwed the fans ever since, with over two decades of ticket price rises on an almost annual basis, way above the levels of inflation. Now, we sit passively, and watch enviously the hugely successful Bundesliga game, with its massive crowds (many thousands of whom stand for around twelve quid a ticket) watching some of the best football in Europe on display.
Seating has never been popular with those who stood on what used to be called the ‘popular ends’ of our football grounds where the songs get launched and sung most lustily. In fact, at Anfield and elsewhere, for any football match of real importance (ie versus Everton or any major big club rivals) fans stand in seated areas for the entire game, as they did in the Kop for the Arsenal game last Saturday. Standing in seated areas is much more dangerous than standing in properly designed safe-standing areas.
Last week, after a vigorous, very well-organised and lengthy campaign by the Football Supporters Federation (FSF), the Football League clubs voted, in principle, to discuss in detail the prospect of returning standing to their grounds and to lobby the Govt. This week Bristol City announced it will install ‘rail seats’ which allow seated areas to be used for safe standing too.
Despite the Premier League immediately indicating they had no interest in even talking about a return to standing (but then they would, wouldn’t they?), Aston Villa and some other PL clubs have also indicated an interest in the prospect. It’s the first crack in the wall.
It will need a change in the law to accomplish it. And any such change would be vigorously opposed by many, including the Hillsborough Families Group. But these days, the ‘unthinkable’ is beginning to be seriously considered in many western democracies. Just look at the creeping process of cannabis legalisation in Europe and the USA.
Maybe the ‘war on hooliganism’ will go the same way as the ‘war on drugs’.
Dr Rogan Taylor is the Director of the Football Industry Group at the University of Liverpool. He is also a writer and broadcaster, with five football books and numerous radio and TV contributions. He has acted as a special adviser to The FA, The Premier League and Premier League Clubs.