Noting that traveling Manchester United supporters had to shell out £45 to see their club defeat Fulham at the aptly named Craven Cottage earlier today, the Observer’s Paul Wilson opines “all-seat stadiums might have been an appropriate and necessary response to a dreadful tragedy, but they changed football in ways that few could have foreseen at the time.”
Lord Justice Taylor tried his best, specifically recommending that clubs should not use seats as a means of ramping up prices, but his wishes were ignored and seats, wages, television deals and almost everything else have been ramped up to a level that everyone in Life on Mars except John Simm would find staggering.
Yet as events at Lens so vividly demonstrated, seats in themselves are no panacea. Not when fences still exist, Uefa stage games at unsatisfactory venues as if Heysel had never happened and the police default mode is to treat all fans as hooligans. Even in this country, where the high cost of seats is rather loftily held to have solved the hooliganism problem now plaguing Italy (by pricing out the young and the troublesome), being forced to sit down is proving divisive. Hardly a game goes by at Anfield or Old Trafford without repeated Tannoy requests for fans to show consideration for other supporters and sit down. There is nothing more annoying than paying a fortune for a seat then being forced to stand because people in front of you are standing, and this ongoing argument itself is likely to provoke a major disturbance before long.
So should we bring back standing areas, as more than 100 MPs have requested? I would say yes, because they improve atmosphere, allow easier and cheaper admission, are still enjoyed in Europe and in other sports, and need not be considered inherently dangerous in modern stadiums with CCTV and improved stewarding. But I was not at Hillsborough, nor did I lose a friend or relative in the crush, and I fully respect the view that even a slight risk of a repeat is too much of a risk to take.
In theory at least, standing areas offer the hope of turning back the clock to a time when the cost of admission to a football ground did not exclude anyone, when you could choose your immediate company, make as much noise as you wanted and feel part of a crowd rather than a member of an audience. All the things that used to distinguish football from a visit to the theatre, in other words. Clubs used to peddle the line that they were offering similar entertainment to the theatre and were entitled to charge similar prices to seat spectators in comfort, but this is clearly nonsense. Half the fans don’t want to be seated, in any case who goes to the theatre every week, and how many theatre-goers make away trips to Sunderland and Wigan?