First published on FootyMatters.com
Sitting in the main stand during a dreadful 0-0 draw between Hibernian and St Johnstone, I cringed as the game petered out, even with St Johnstone down to ten men and shutting up shop against a blunt Hibs side.
Had it not been a rare father-son bonding trip I might have left Easter Road to beat the rush to the bar, but my father, a true Scot, wanted to get his money’s worth, as presumably did the other 8,000 who remained, although they did so quietly.
Three rows behind us, a man stood up and began to roar “Hiiiiiibeeeess, Hiiiiiibeeeess, Hiiiiiibeeeess”. A profound silence swamped the section. He continued. Had this been a soppy, unrealistic Hollywood rom-thrill, pockets of men all over the stand would have joined him, until eventually a disenchanted crowd had turned into a band of men, women, and children baying for St Johnstonian blood. Lifted by the sheer noise, Liam Craig, captain fantastic, would skin a number of his former team-mates before firing the ball home to bring the house down, before being carried off on the shoulders of his new crew.
None of this happened. In fact, the man grew bored of solitarily chanting and sat down again. The game continued, the crowd grew so quiet that away goalkeeper’s cry of “Away!” was consistently the loudest thing in the stadium. It was a disappointing atmosphere, and a horrible game to watch. The only time the noise levels reached anywhere near a din was when the referee made yet another mistake. The players were distinctly nonplussed at the entire occasion. It was as though we’d all got Bruce Springsteen tickets, but Liberty X had turned up instead, and no-one knew what to do.
Just a couple of days later, a consultation paper on “safe standing” was sent to every football league club in advance of a debate in February. My father and I pondered whether had we all already been standing, we might have joined our tribal leader in his bellowing, as would those around us. We came to the conclusion that a section of standing might at least have got all those who wished to sing into the same place, and united they might lift the whole stadium. Had I been standing, I’d have blasted it out with the best of them.
While the safety issues must be debated, especially in light of the recent revelations about the Hillsborough cover-up, standing could be seen as a huge opportunity for clubs to improve their attendances and atmospheres, which are quietly dwindling. English football grounds used to be known as some of the fiercest in the world, but years of negative press (right or wrong) over hooliganism have turned most league grounds into far more family-orientated places, with chanting almost discouraged, and more emphasis placed on the price of burgers than noise levels.
What we are experiencing is a long-term backlash to the tragedy of Hillsborough, behaviour of English fans abroad that led to bans, football banning orders, and a general stricter policing of crowds at games. Because of this, we have begun to throw singing, hooliganism, disaster, and standing altogether into the same pot. Simply put, we are afraid to stand; we are afraid to sing.
In October, Manchester United trialled a 1400-seater “singing section” which met with mixed reviews. However, fans stood for the majority of the game, which in a stadium designed for all-seater is very dangerous, although we see it on a regular basis. The link between singing and standing is clear. You wouldn’t sit to sing the national anthem or a hymn in church: only boy-bands sit on stools to sing.
In Germany, at the Westfalenstadion, there is a 25,000-person section of “safe standing”, which consists of seats that can be locked in an upright position, and traditional-style rails on every tier to prevent any falls or crushes. Dortmund boast one of the best atmospheres in Europe, not to mention an average attendance of over 80,000. The capacity is in fact, 80,700.
They are by no means the only club in Germany with standing sections, which are a tried and tested method of improving attendance and atmosphere in stadia on the continent. The average Bundesliga attendance last year was 42,624 while the Premier League on average only boasted 35,921.
Of course there are other factors in fan attendance, but clearly those football league executives who attended the German Super Cup final in July (at the Westfalenstadion) were suitably impressed by the organisation there to even begin to consider bringing standing on the terraces back to Britain.
With any luck, safe standing will be trialled in England soon enough. It is certainly the happy medium between rowdy terraces and glum seated stadiums. And maybe, when I’m standing with my dad in 10 years’ time at Easter Road, when the fat old man three rows back opens up his lungs, he’ll be drowned out by the response. I certainly don’t want to have to listen to him anymore.
All attendance figures courtesy of European Football Statistics