Fans, experts debate the return of standing areas to Premier League stadiums

For more than two decades, standing areas have not been permitted in Premier League stadiums, but they may be on the way back.

Next Thursday at a meeting of Premier League shareholders the issue will be formally discussed for the first time since all-seated facilities were mandated in 1994, a decision that stemmed from a report filed by Lord Justice Taylor regarding the 1989 tragedy at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield that resulted in 96 deaths and more than 700 injuries.
Lord Taylor’s report did not blame standing areas at Hillsborough for the disaster, in which Liverpool fans in the Leppings Lane End were crushed and stampeded by overcrowding as an FA Cup semifinal match against Nottingham Forest kicked off.

So-called “crush barriers,” which were in place to prevent such problems, proved to be totally ineffective as masses of people poured into sections that were already full of fans packed together, and those in the front were either trampled or crushed up against the fencing behind the goal. The ban was implemented in the wake of Lord Taylor’s report, though subsequent inquiries and investigations prompted by protests by families of the deceased fans placed blame on human error rather than stadium design.

Since the ban was instituted, fan groups and safety experts have lobbied for the return of properly designed standing areas but have met resistance from Premier League officials. The use of rail seats, which can be lifted and locked in place to allow fans to stand, has been proposed as a safe alternative to the traditional terraces that lacked suitable crowd control elements as well as quick emergency access.

Premier League executive chairman Richard Scudamore told The Guardian, “We’re not immune to the fact that this is a topic and therefore it is in discussion with our clubs. They are all looking at the issue and at some point it will come around our table and we will see if there’s a point at which we might open up discussions with government to see what their view is on it.

“It’s very much individual clubs sensing for themselves where they are with it and we may or may not facilitate that discussion in the weeks and months to come.”

Proponents of a change say the laws regarding all-seater stadiums do not mandate that fans actually use the seats, merely that such seating must be in place. The flip seats, which are being used in sections of stadiums in several countries, still segregate the fans by rows of rails to which the seats are attached. Fans stand in front of their flipped-seats behind a rail to which the row of seats in front of them is attached.

Plastic temporary seats, which are installed by many teams to meet the rules of European competitions that do not allow standing areas, can be torn off their attachments to be thrown or used as weapons. Flip seats are heavily bolted to their rails and much harder to dislodge.
The Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA) that oversees compliance can, so believe the proponents, allow the use of flip seats. The all-seater requirement does not apply to English teams in League One and League Two, nor in stadiums used for rugby. Standing areas are used in many soccer stadiums across Europe. The home of Borussia Dortmund, Signal Iduna Park (a.k.a. Westfalenstadion), features a standing area that can hold approximately 24,500 people.

The Football Supporters’ Federation has supported safe standing areas since 2002. The Scottish Professional Football League dropped its all-seater requirement several years ago and in 2013 Football League clubs voted for trials of rail seats being used in Germany and Scandinavian countries.

If rail seats are used a stadium’s capacity does not change. The only change is the type of seat provided. Celtic is the first British team to test rail seats; they have been installed in a section of Celtic Park that has a capacity of 2,900.

In a Mail on Sunday survey of the 20 top-flight clubs three years ago, 19 of them favored safe-standing alternatives. The holdout was Liverpool, yet there too the mood may be changing. One of the club’s fan groups, Spirit of Shankly, has begun consulting experts on the issue and will hold a formal vote next summer. Its fans protested bitterly when seats were installed in its famous terrace, the Kop, which after an expansion in the 1920s could hold about 27,000 fans.

Major change is not imminent, but the Kop might make a comeback.

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