Twenty-five years on from the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, the all-seater stadia that became the tragedy’s legacy are at the heart of a debate about the English fan experience.
The disaster, which saw 96 Liverpool supporters crushed to death during an FA Cup semi-final, was the nadir of a desperate time for English soccer, with crumbling facilities and falling attendances symptomatic of a sport in decline.
However, a 1990 report into the tragedy by leading judge Peter Taylor proved the catalyst for far-reaching changes, which would make the English game the envy of the world.
Perimeter fencing, a reaction to the hooligan problems of the 1970s and 1980s, was abolished, and by the end of last century, modern, all-seater arenas had become the norm.
Sky’s acquisition of television rights for the newly rebranded Premier League stimulated interest in the sport and the company’s financial backing enabled clubs to modernize, signing exotic foreign players who helped transform English soccer into the biggest show in town.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter said: “If you look at the organization of football in England, and also in Scotland, it has all come out of the disaster in Sheffield at Hillsborough in 1989. It was here that the success of the English Premier League started.”
Today, England’s top flight is the world’s most-watched domestic championship, with a global television rights deal worth an estimated ￡5.5 billion (US$9.2 billion), but some supporters feel short-changed.
Irked by a rule preventing fans from standing in England’s top two divisions, the Football Supporters’ Federation has called for “safe standing” sections to be trialled at selected grounds.
Any such scheme would involve the use of so-called “rail seats” — robust, fold-up seats built into a high metal rail that fans in the row behind can hold if they wish to stand.
The seats are widely used in Germany — including at Borussia Dortmund’s 80,000-seater Westfalenstadion — and campaigners believe their introduction in England would create a safe environment for supporters who wish to watch matches on their feet.
The Football League (England’s second, third and fourth divisions) has backed the safe standing campaign, and third-tier Bristol City this year became the first British club to install rail seats on a trial basis.
The initiative also has the support of several Premier League sides, with one Aston Villa official claiming recently that there are “at least seven or eight clubs” eager to implement the scheme.
Manchester United are reportedly among the clubs to have backed the idea, while Jon Darch, head of campaign group the Safe Standing Roadshow, said that an unnamed Premier League chief executive has told him: “I’d buy 3,000 [seats] tomorrow if I could, but I can’t.”
However, next week’s 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy has provided a lightning rod for opposition to the proposals from the families of those who died.
“Standing should never, ever come back. I do not think there is anything safe about standing,” said Margaret Aspinall, chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, whose 18-year-old son, James, died at Hillsborough. “I feel insulted that while people are trying to fight for justice for Hillsborough, that this campaign is growing now.”
The game’s decisionmakers also remain cautious, with Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore declaring in February that there is “no constitutional majority” of top-flight clubs in favor of the idea.