Wednesday, 21 February 2007

How far we've come

The scenes from Len's Stade Felix-Bollaert were starting to look very familiar to many a British football fan. It has nearly been 20 years since the shocking scenes at Hillsborough in 1989 when 96 people died due to overcrowding. In an almost exact carbon copy, too many people were admitted to a section of the stadium surrounded by fencing, and when fans tried to escape the police set upon them. Luckily this time there have been no fatalities.

Since 1989 the authorities have sought that Hillsborough should never happen again on UK soil and resulting in the introduction of new safety features such as turnstyle counting, no standing areas, better CCTV and tighter stewarding control. However one change has caused most controversy - the removal of terracing. Hillsborough happened upon a terrace sub-divided into 'pens' to prevent rioting, a lack of control over access to these pens caused the two middle ones to become severely overcrowded as no one knew how many people were already accommodated. Despite Lord Justice Taylor concluding that "terracing in itself is not intrinsically unsafe", the easiest way of ensuring that a 'safe' number of fans were in the stadium was to make them all seater. One seat = One fan. Or does it?

Stade Felix-Bollaert is an all seater stadium. And yet too many people were allowed into the tier. This boils back down to a simple lack of control over supporters numbers within the stadium. So whether a stadium consists of terracing, seats or a mixture of both, if no one controls who goes in, they can both become unsafe - exactly what Taylor concluded.

Many are supporting the idea of "safe standing", that a section of supporters should be allowed to stand in front of their allocated seat. On the one hand this seems simple enough. But with the new design of all seater stadia, the stands are now significantly steeper than the terracing. This is potentially dangerous too, and so any action, if it were to come, would have to be decided on a stadium-by-stadium basis. But people must get used to the fact that all seater stadia in the top two tiers of British football are here to stay. For although they have "killed the atmosphere" according to many, they have brought a much easier life for the football fan by virtually eliminating in-stadia fights and rioting and made the football experience more pleasant. Football supporters enjoy a freer life than they did 20 years ago. Look how far we have come.

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